The Most Damning Passages in the New York Stop and Frisk Ruling

The numbers are bad. But these recorded quotes from department leaders really get at the heart of the problem.

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Reuters

Let's start with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's reaction to the ruling Monday that his police department has for years now been carrying out unconstitutional stop-and-frisks that deliberately target and violate the rights of minorities. Here he is, foaming at the mouth at a press conference yesterday, following the release of Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin's decision:

This is a dangerous decision made by a judge who I think does not understand how policing works and what is compliant with the U.S. Constitution as determined by the Supreme Court. I worry for my kids, and I worry for your kids. I worry for you and I worry for me. Crime can come back any time the criminals think they can get away with things. We just cannot let that happen.

There are an awful lot offensive ideas packed in these five sentences. There is the gross fear-mongering ("I worry for your kids"). There is the unproven implication of cause-and-effect (without stop-and-frisk, crime will "come back"). There is the dangerous idea that a federal judge is not qualified to grasp "how policing works." There is the total disregard for the central fact that this case was never about the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk in the first place. Plenty of police tactics might keep your kids and Michael Bloomberg's kids safe on the streets of New York City, like random home weapon inspections or mass preventive detentions. But, inconveniently, those ideas are constitutional.

And then there is the ridiculous notion that Scheindlin does not understand "what is compliant with the U.S. Constitution." Her painstakingly thorough, intensely documented 195-page decision in the case illustrates that she probably gets the thorny constitutional questions involved here a little better than Bloomberg does. The mayor, in contrast, sounds as if he's been judging the validity of stop-and-frisk for a decade now with a muddy mix of ego, emotion, and misunderstood statistics.

Which brings us to Scheindlin's decision. The document walks through the data behind 4.4 million stop-and-frisks between January 2004 and June 2012 that suggest a racially discriminatory policy of targeting what law enforcement called "the right people" (a funny thing about data: "while the NYPD is an acknowledged leader in the use of data collection and analysis to improve the effectiveness of policing, it has hindered the collection of accurate data concerning the constitutionality of its stops, and made no effective use of the limited data that is available").

But beyond the data, Scheindlin's ruling also captures the damning culture in which the NYPD ignored previous warnings about stop-and-frisk, pressured officers to ramp up their numbers, never paused to assess the constitutionality of individual stops, and internalized contempt for the communities heavily targeted by the policy.

Scheindlin's ruling quotes at length from roll-call recordings made by three officers that "provide a rare window into how the NYPD’s policies are actually carried out." Here is Lieutenant Jean Delafuente speaking in a meeting on Nov. 8 of 2008 at the 81st Precinct in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn:

All right, I went out there [to Howard and Chauncey] yesterday and . . . we’ve got the old man out there with the grey hairs. A loud mouth. He thinks since he’s 55 years old he’s not going to get locked up. Well, guess what? I don’t tolerate shit out there. He went in and two of his pals went in. All right? So we’ve got to keep the corner clear. . . . Because if you get too big of a crowd there, you know, . . . they’re going to think that they own the block. We own the block. They don’t own the block, all right? They might live there but we own the block. All right? We own the streets here. You tell them what to do.

Here is Sergeant Raymond Stukes in the same precinct on March 13, 2009. A "250" refers to paperwork that officers fill out after a stop-a-frisk (the italics are Scheindlin's):

If you see guys walking down the street, move ‘em along. Two or three guys you can move, you can’t move 15, all right? If you want to be a[n] asshole or whatever you want to call it, make a move. If they won’t move, call me over and lock them up [for disorderly conduct]. No big deal. We could leave them there all night. . . . The less people on the street, the easier our job will be . . . . If you stop them[,] 250, how hard is a 250. I’m not saying make it up but you can always articulate robbery, burglary, whatever the case may be. That’s paperwork . . . It’s still a number. It keeps the hounds off, I’ve been saying that for months.

Here is Deputy Inspector Steven Mauriello on Halloween in 2008:

Tonight is zero tolerance. It’s New Years Eve all over again. Everybody goes. I don’t care. . . . They’re throwing dice? They all go, promote gambling. I don’t care. Let the DA discuss what they’re going to do tomorrow. . . . They got [bandanas] on and they’re running like nuts down the block, chasing people? Grab them. Fuck it. You’re preventing a robbery . . . . You know that and I know that.

And the same guy again in November of 2008:

I’m tired of bandanas on their waist and I’m tired of these beads. Red and black beads mean Bloods. Their bandanas — if they’re walking down the street and they’ve got a bandana sticking out their ass, coming out there — they’ve got to be stopped. A 250 at least. At least.

The data make clear that the NYPD has been wildly stretching the definition of "suspicious" in stopping hundreds of thousands of minorities who turned out to be innocent (often repeatedly). But these quotes paint a much more painfully human picture of the department culture in which that was not only okay, but encouraged.

If Bloomberg wants to appeal to the public's emotional reaction by inciting fear, others might want to consider the above quotes and respond instead with anger.

Top image of Mayor Bloomberg addressing the media after Monday's stop-and-frisk ruling: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.