In the last two weeks, some Americans have heard more about a controversial New York City Police Department tactic — “stop and frisk” — than possibly ever before.
A whole host of conservative ideologues, elected officials and others have stepped forward to defend the Trump-Pence campaign's claims that that tactic is an essential crime prevention tool uniquely capable of fending off anarchy and saving lives in crime-ridden communities. That's what the Trump-Pence campaign continues to say even when confronted with the fact that a federal court ruled in 2013 that the way New York City police officers used the tactic was unconstitutional and could not continue.
So, The Fix thought it wise to check in with Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). For the last 11 years, Charney has practiced federal civil rights and constitutional law, with a focus on challenging illegal policies, the actions of government officials and agencies that disproportionately harm marginalized groups. When Charney joined CCR in January 2008, the organization was compiling a stop-and-frisk legal challenge. A few weeks later, Charney personally filed the case, Floyd v. City of New York. Later, he was part of a team of attorneys that successfully challenged the way the tactic was used in federal court.
What follows is a Q&A conducted via email, edited only for clarity and length.
THE FIX: There have been a lot of conflicting, partially true and completely untrue reports about the status of stop and frisk in recent weeks. There have even been claims that an abandoned appeal renders the federal court's ruling null and void. Could you help us set the record straight?
CHARNEY: The court did not rule that stop and frisk is an unconstitutional policing tactic that police officers can never use. Rather, the court ruled that the way in which the New York Police Department (NYPD) conducted stops and frisks from 2005-2013, without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and often on the basis of a person’s race, was unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.
The administration of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg did appeal that decision in the fall of 2013, but, upon taking office in 2014, Mayor Bill deBlasio and new NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton chose to accept the court's findings, withdraw the city's appeal in 2014 and move forward with the court-ordered reforms.
So the court's rulings stand. It’s worth noting that at its height in 2011, the NYPD conducted 684,000 stops of New Yorkers. By 2013, the year of the trial, Bloomberg had already cut the number of reported to around 191,000. In 2015, officers recorded only 23,000 stops.
The NYPD is still permitted to conduct — and is, in fact, still conducting — stops and frisks on the streets of New York City, although the number of stops recorded by the NYPD have drastically declined, by 97 percent, over the past five years. The federal court monitor and the Floyd plaintiffs will soon begin reviewing and analyzing these stops to determine if the NYPD is now complying with the constitution.
THE FIX: Is there any pending legal action related to stop and frisk?
CHARNEY: In August 2013, after a 10-week trial, the federal district court in Manhattan found the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional and racially discriminatory and ordered wholesale changes to the NYPD's stop-and-frisk-related policies and procedures, training, supervisory, disciplinary and monitoring systems.
For the past two years, the NYPD and the Floyd plaintiffs have been working with a federal court-appointed monitor to develop these court-ordered reforms. Once they are developed and approved by the federal court, the monitor will oversee and measure the NYPD's implementation and compliance with these reforms.
Federal oversight will continue until the NYPD has complied with all of the court-ordered reforms.
THE FIX: What do you make of the fact that the NYPD issued a press release last week saying that stop and frisk is not unconstitutional and murders have not increased in New York City?
CHARNEY: The NYPD's press release is correct that stop and frisk in general is not unconstitutional, but it failed to mention that the way the NYPD practiced stop and frisk for a decade was unconstitutional.
The point about murders not increasing following the NYPD's scaling back of stop and frisk underscores how an aggressive and abusive use of the tactic is not an effective crime-fighting strategy.
Opponents of police reform predicted a bloodbath if the NYPD were forced to cut back on its stops and frisks, but that just didn’t happen.
THE FIX: What were the key pieces of evidence that led the center to take this matter to court and played a key role in the court's ruling?
CHARNEY: What led the Center for Constitutional Rights to mount our legal challenge was several years’ worth of the NYPD's own stop-and frisk data, which revealed severe racial disparities in who was being stopped and showed that the vast majority of people stopped were not engaged in criminal activity nor in possession of weapons or contraband and (b) harrowing stories from many New Yorkers, particularly young black and Latino men, who had been stopped, frisked and searched multiple times on their way to school, work, etc., for no apparent reason.
These stories and this data, as well as statements from several high-ranking NYPD officials that they did in fact target young black and Latino men for stops, played a big role in the court's findings.
THE FIX: Why do you think that so many people stubbornly hold onto the belief that stop and frisk is a uniquely effective anti-crime tactic and “danger” is created when it is no longer used?
CHARNEY: I suspect it's the same reason the federal government invoked “national security” and “terrorism” to justify to the American public many of the restrictive, legally questionable counterterrorism policies and programs enacted after 9/11.
Throughout American history, government officials have tried to use fear and a false “liberty-security” dichotomy to push through measures that severely restrict many of the freedoms that are supposed to be guaranteed to everyone in this country under the Constitution. Many of our leaders don't seem to have learned their lesson.
THE FIX: As you know, stop and frisk came up in the presidential debate last week, during the vice presidential debate this week and has been described repeatedly by Republican nominee Donald Trump and his surrogates as an effective and essential crime-fighting tool. What do people who make these claims need to know?
CHARNEY: All of the published empirical studies I've read that have looked at this question, and I've read a lot of them, have found that stop and frisk has had little to no impact on crime reduction in New York or anywhere else.
Crime rates were going down across the country. Cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Atlanta and Charlotte all showed large crime declines between 2002 and 2014, yet none of these cities conducted anywhere close to the number of stops per capita that New York City did during the Bloomberg-Kelly [then-New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly] years.
THE FIX: Do you have any sense of how many jurisdictions make use of stop and frisk or a car-based equivalent? Could you identify some of those cities for us here?
CHARNEY: Stop and frisk is a law enforcement tactic used by police officers throughout the country. But few jurisdictions made a concerted, departmentwide effort to aggressively use it as a crime-fighting strategy on the level that New York did. The only other cities that come to mind are Philadelphia, Boston and perhaps Baltimore [Editor's note: Chicago also uses stop and frisk].
THE FIX: Is there anything more that it might be important for our readers to know or understand right now about stop and frisk or larger questions of racial and ethnic equity in policing?
CHARNEY: Stop and frisk is one form of aggressive, racially biased policing. Unfortunately, the police killing of unarmed people of color across the country is an outgrowth of that same bias.
The reforms we are in the midst of putting into place here in New York try to address the culture of the department from top to bottom, which is no easy task. In addition to the court-ordered reforms, the judge also ordered a joint remedial process to get substantive input from the most directly affected communities. That process, which we saw as crucial if there was to be hope of real change, has been moving on a parallel track.
We won’t know those results or the effect of all the changes for some time, but if we don’t all make this a priority in every city and town across the country, we will only continue to see more killings by police and more distrust from the communities they are meant to serve.