Independent Oversight Needed to Curb NYPD Stop and Frisk Abuse, Experts Say

May 30, 2013

This week, members of the New York City Council re-introduced a bill to create an Inspector General to oversee the New York Police Department (NYPD) — oversight recently echoed in a trial over the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk program this month. 

On May 15, Deputy Commissioner for Strategic Initiatives for the NYPD, Michael Farrell, testified in the city’s stop-and-frisk trial, Floyd v. City of New York. But in his attempt to establish that the police department currently has sufficient checks to address police misconduct, Farrell issued a series of troubling statements that further underscored the NYPD’s need to establish independent oversight.

Near the end of his testimony, Farrell intimated that Blacks and Latinos are interchangeable minorities. When asked whether he was concerned that an officer had stopped Blacks at a 30 percent higher rate than other officers, Farrell surprised the courtroom by responding that the officer was simultaneously “under-stopping Hispanics,” somehow interpreting this to mean there were reasons other than the presumption of racial bias.

There are a few ways to interpret Farrell’s response: One is that the NYPD thinks racial bias is only a problem when the prejudice extends to more than one minority group. Another is that the department believes it’s okay to over-stop one race as long as it roughly evens out with how much they stop another. Only after U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin repeatedly questioned Farrell’s statement, did he admit that it is “theoretically possible” for an officer to be biased against one race but not another.  

This is troubling, to say the least. Almost all of the internal checks described by the NYPD rely on a supervisor’s ability to pick up on discrepancies like this one and properly discipline an officer. So when the department’s head of strategic initiatives insinuates that minorities are interchangeable or that racial bias is merely “theoretical,” it indicates that this system hasn’t been working for some time. Line officers could have supervision at every step along the way, but if those at the top do not recognize racial profiling and correct the problem, those internal checks are useless.

Farrell then continued his testimony by claiming that current NYPD oversight and accountability mechanisms are sufficient — a claim that discounts more than a decade of complaints about the stop-and-frisk policy from minority communities, community leaders, and city council members like Speaker Christine Quinn and Jumaane Williams.

Thankfully, Samuel Walker, an expert on police accountability, proposed a series of reforms in his testimony that aims at limiting abuse in the stop-and-frisk program. Walker’s reforms included greater training for all officers, a new citizen complaint procedure, and a requirement that beyond just checking a box on the UF-250 form, officers must write a narrative portion in which they personally explain why they stopped someone.

Walker also proposed the creation of an independent monitor to oversee the stop-and-frisk program. Specifically, Walker suggested that the court-appointed monitor would conduct audits, track the progress of reform initiatives, and submit regular reports to the court, available to the public, on meetings with commanders to ensure incident reports are written and reviewed. Walker stressed that this is a comprehensive plan – that without all these components working in unison, the entire plan would fail to produce meaningful results.

While this plan is indeed comprehensive, its real strength is in addressing the systemic issues highlighted by Farrell in his testimony, like his choice not to flag an officer who demonstrates bias against Blacks over other races. An independent monitor would also address community concerns by serving as a liaison between communities and NYPD leadership.

Hopefully, Walker’s proposed oversight reforms, strengthened by support from the City Council, will result in the creation of an independent monitor who will address long-standing institutional issues within the NYPD and begin to mend community trust that has been frayed by overly intrusive policing tactics for far too long.

Photo by Dave Hosford.