NEW YORK » After more than a decade of complaints, the New York Police Department’s practice of stopping and frisking people on the streets has suddenly moved to the forefront as a combustible political issue.
City Council members thundered at a hearing that the "stop and frisk" tactic is discriminatory and ineffective. Mayoral hopefuls have clamored to call for change. A politically powerful union has said it won’t support a candidate who doesn’t criticize stop and frisks, which officers conducted nearly 700,000 times last year.
How did stop and frisk go from perennial gripe to hot topic in just the last year or so? It was a case of many factors coming together, seemingly at once: increased use of the tactic, public pressure, campaign politics and residents’ divided feelings about policing post-9/11 New York.
"You’ve got a confluence of many streams here," says Douglas Muzzio, a Baruch College political science professor who specializes in city politics. "In some sense, it’s time for an adult discussion about the nature of crime … and the nature of stop and frisk."
Partly, that’s because of sheer numbers. The NYPD began increasing its emphasis on stop and frisk as a crime-fighting tool in the mid-1990s, but the stops soared in the last decade, hitting a record 684,330 last year. That was 14 percent more than in 2010 and about seven times the number in 2002.
But other factors have helped push the issue into the public consciousness. Some were carefully orchestrated, including a silent march that drew thousands of people on Father’s Day. Others were as unexpected as police handcuffing and detaining a city councilman as he went through a blocked-off area to get to a parade last fall.
So far, it’s not clear what will come of the attention swirling around stop and frisk. The NYPD responded this spring by announcing more training and monitoring for some officers, but stop-and-frisk critics want new rules for the stops and an independent inspector general for the department.
Last week’s City Council hearing showed the issue is in play — so much so that two additional hearings are scheduled in community settings this month. But it’s too soon to say whether any of the proposals will get to a vote, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg has strongly defended the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk.
Still, advocates for curtailing the stops say they feel new momentum.
"We definitely have a chance," said Brian Pearson, a 36-year-old construction worker who says he repeatedly has been stopped and frisked while doing nothing wrong.
Those with misgivings sense the momentum, too. If the issue’s time has come, it’s because advocates have lost sight of the past, says Councilman Peter Vallone, chairman of the public safety committee.
The further the city gets from the high crime of the 1980s and ’90s, he says, "the easier it is for people to forget the difficult choices and actions we had to take to get here."
Under a 1968 Supreme Court ruling, police can stop, question and sometimes frisk people they think might be doing something criminal, even if officers’ suspicions don’t meet the probable-cause standard for an arrest.
The technique has stoked controversy beyond New York. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee backed off plans to adopt stop and frisk after weeks of criticism this summer. Philadelphia settled a civil rights lawsuit last year over its stop and frisk program by agreeing to court monitoring.
In New York, police and Bloomberg say stop and frisk has helped the city reach historically low crime rates in recent years — indeed, New York has the lowest crime rate among the nation’s biggest cities, as measured by the FBI. In one oft-cited benchmark, there were 515 killings citywide last year, compared with 2,245 in 1990.
But skeptics call the practice racial discrimination with a questionable impact on crime. Eighty-seven percent of those stopped last year were black or Hispanic, compared with 54 percent of the city population as a whole — though police and city officials emphasize that more than 90 percent of violent crime suspects are black or Hispanic. About 88 percent of the stops resulted in neither arrests nor tickets.
A 2003 court settlement and various city laws have instructed police to provide stop and frisk data and avoid racial profiling.
But as the stops have risen, so has a perception that they mark out a racial fault line. Recent polls show a stark divide over how blacks and whites view the tactic, while a majority or plurality of Hispanics approve of it.
And since last year, stop and frisk has become a rallying point for broader concerns about the relationship among police, citizens, public safety and civil liberties in a city that has held security paramount since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The stop and frisk activism has drawn in Muslim-Americans concerned about wide-reaching NYPD surveillance revealed in a series of reports by The Associated Press; the family of an unarmed man killed by an officer who followed him into his home during a drug investigation; and City Councilman Jumaane Williams, the lawmaker detained at the September 2011 West Indian Day Parade. He’s steering the various stop and frisk measures the council is considering, including the inspector general proposal.
Meanwhile, courtroom clashes over stop and frisk have amplified the debate. Twenty activists arrested at a stop and frisk protest, including Princeton University professor Cornel West, spotlighted their views at their disorderly conduct trial this spring. They were ultimately convicted.
Separately, a federal judge cited "overwhelming evidence" of thousands of unlawful stops in a ruling in an ongoing lawsuit over the practice. And this summer, the Bronx district attorney’s office began insisting on interviewing officers before pursuing certain stop-and-frisk-based trespass cases, out of concern that some arrests have been shaky.
And with Bloomberg’s third and final term ending next year, stop and frisk has become an avenue for mayoral contenders to distinguish themselves from him and elevate their standing with minority voters. The union SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents 200,000 people in the city and suburbs, has said it will choose a candidate who speaks out against stop and frisk.
It’s typical that it has taken a number of elements to give the issue critical mass, says Queens College political scientist Michael Krasner, who has studied social and political movements.
"It almost has to be overdetermined for it to happen at all," he said.