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Even Police Brass Question Escalating Stop and Frisk Numbers

Protesters march along Third Avenue on Jan. 27, 2012 to denounce the police policy of stop, frisk and question.
Protesters march along Third Avenue on Jan. 27, 2012 to denounce the police policy of stop, frisk and question.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

NEW YORK CITY — The number of people stopped and frisked under the NYPD's controversial crime-fighting tactic has increased seven-fold since Police Commissioner Ray Kelly took charge 10 years ago — and even police officials are asking why.

As the practice draws heavy fire from concerned public officials and civic leaders, numerous current and former police officials — some directly involved in establishing operational strategies and overseeing Compstat during the Kelly era — want to know why it's grown from fewer than 100,000 stops when Kelly took over in 2002 to nearly 700,000 last year.

These are not civil liberty union officials claiming the program smacks of racial profiling. They are not cop-haters or politicians using the issue to seek higher office. And they are not former police officials turned academics criticizing from outside the department.

These are smart, veteran police officials who love the city, the NYPD and cops.  They are the types who believe there are few callings in life better than fighting crime.

"If we are throwing 700,000 people against the wall, what are the criminal profiles of the people being stopped?" one ex-official asked.  "Why are we stopping them? And if there are no summonses issued or arrests made, why not?"

Another cop boss added, "And who is doing all this stopping and frisking?"

If the majority of the stops are being done by experienced anti-crime cops, "I have more confidence in their ability to police and make proper choices on who to stop," he said.

"The ends do not always justify the means," one of the officials recently told me as he described, "Stop, Question and Frisks" as a program that should perhaps be re-named "Rousting Minorities."

For their part, Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are holding to their line that "Stop and Frisk" tactics reduce crime, save lives and keep guns off the streets.

Everyone, even the critics, agree that "Stop and Frisk" is a valuable police tool and that the overwhelming number of them would logically be done in higher-crime neighborhoods.  The problem is that, as the numbers skyrocket, it means more and more innocent people are being inconvenienced.

And at what point is it reaching needless proportions when young innocent black college kids are instinctively lifting their shirts at the sight of cops?

But the ever-increasing number of stops are done by rookie and less-experienced cops who are thrown into high-crime neighborhoods to provide police presence in a program called Operation Impact.

"You are placing officers with very little experience out there and they are practicing nothing but 'Let’s slap the black and brown people up against the wall,' and it [upsets] the very people you are trying to protect," he added.

By comparison, in the 1990s, the NYPD relied largely on a highly experienced, tightly controlled unit of about 300 cops to get guns off the streets. These cops could sniff out who was packing or acting suspiciously like dogs ferreting out a bone. They were called the "Street Crime Unit."

They were so successful that then-Commissioner Howard Safir wanted to expand the unit under the theory that more SCU cops meant more guns taken off the streets. 

Back in 1999, the unit’s commanding officer, Capt. Richard Savage, warned Safir against expansion. He argued it would water down the unit and reduce control.

Safir overruled him. Within months, four white SCU cops shot and killed unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in the vestibule of his home when he pulled out his wallet. The SCU was disbanded shortly thereafter.

The shooting prompted the city to require the NYPD to hand over its stop-and-frisk numbers. 

But that stopped when Kelly came back for a second stint atop the NYPD.

To borrow a famously understated observation by Robert DeNiro in the movie "Goodfellas" about a snotty mob captain who just got out of jail, New Yorkers rightfully are wondering if the NYPD is "a little out of order."

It was only after about five years that the NYPD finally handed over the numbers. They had reached half a million and the five-fold leap was stunning. 

Now, two years later, with concerns mounting, the numbers continue to jump.

Last Friday, the NYPD revealed they conducted 204,000 "Stop-and-Frisks" in just the first three months of the year, pushing the boundary even further.

How has a police department that was conducting 500,000 stop and frisks a year — or 1,400-a-day — compelled the same number of troops to conduct 200,000 more — or 500 additional stops every day?

And why? 

Is it all about fighting crime? Is it about Kelly and Bloomberg’s legacy?

One official offered insight.  

He said the department a year or so ago quietly issued "performance standards" that only "put more pressure downward on cops, asking them, 'What did you do this week?'

"And the feeling was, ‘If they were going to break my balls, then I will just do what I know they want and end my problem. Period.'"