The city’s police department, tarnished in the past by charges of brutality and racism, is defending itself against fresh criticism over how officers decide whom to stop and search on the streets.
Statistics provided by the police department to the City Council last week show a fivefold increase since 2002 in the number of so-called “stop and frisks,” to more than 500,000 in 2006.
The majority of people stopped, about 55 percent, were black, the numbers show. About 30 percent were Hispanic and 11 percent were white.
The numbers have stoked anger among many people still upset over the deadly police shooting of 23-year-old Sean Bell on his wedding day in November.
Two other men were wounded in the shooting, which sparked allegations of racial bias. The victims were black and unarmed; the officers were white, black and Hispanic.
“It clearly says to the rest of the country that there is a racial problem with the NYPD,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton said he plans to file a class-action lawsuit over the police stops.
The department’s stop-and-search policies came under scrutiny after officers fatally shot Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, in 1999. Afterward, reviews indicated there were racial disparities in police stops.
Police deny any racial bias in the statistics, which arrive at a time when crime levels are relatively low. The department said more vigorous enforcement is partly responsible for the rise, but better record-keeping may have played an even larger role.
“Stop and questioning or stop and frisks of individuals in connection with suspected criminal activity is an essential law enforcement tool,” said Paul Browne, the head police spokesman.
Browne said the numbers must be analyzed in the context of witness and victim statements, which belie racial bias on the part of individual officers.
‘Pretty clear proof’
Although 55.2 percent of people stopped were black, 68.5 percent of suspects as described by victims or witnesses were black, Browne said.
Although 30.5 of those stopped were Hispanic, 24.5 percent of descriptions from victims and witnesses were of Hispanics. And even though 11.1 percent of people stopped were white, victims and witnesses gave descriptions of whites in 5.3 percent of the cases, Browne said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 44 percent of New York City’s population is white, 25 percent is black and 28 percent is Hispanic.
“It’s pretty clear proof that police are not profiling,” said City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., chairman of the council’s public safety committee, which is expected to hold a hearing on the data in the next couple of months. “The people who are being stopped are the people who are being identified by crime victims as their assailants.”
‘It’s very humiliating’
Maki Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the numbers portray a post-Sept. 11 law enforcement mentality that is “much more aggressive” in nature.
“It’s a very controversial thing because stop and frisk is probably the most problematic type of encounter that the police has with the public,” she said. “It’s very invasive, it’s very humiliating for the person stopped.”
The number of complaints about such stops has risen.
According to the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, complaints filed alleging police abuse — verbal or otherwise — involving such stops and searches numbered 925 in 2002. In 2006, the board received 2,556.
Such complaints now make up a greater percentage of overall complaints received by the board, spokesman Andrew Case said. He said the review board will look closely at new “stop-and-frisk” data.
The NYPD, with more 37,000 uniformed officers, is the nation’s biggest police force.