Recent audio adds to NYC stop-and-frisk uproar

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, walks with demonstrators during a silent march to end the "stop-and-frisk" program in New York, Sunday, June 17, 2012.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

NEW YORK The first-ever recording of an actual "stop and frisk" by New York police - purporting to document the abusive handling of a Harlem teenager - has now received more than 700,000 hits on YouTube and national media recognition as the city continues to grapple with the controversial law enforcement tactic.

Erin Schneider co-produced a short documentary on the June 2011 incident, exploring the NYPD tactic under which police officers may stop, question and possibly search someone they believe is suspicious.

"I have never seen it [a violent stop-and-frisk], never experienced it and never been closer than just hearing someone tell me a story about it until I encountered the audio," Schneider said. "It just blew the lid off the whole thing and just gave evidence."

Schneider was at an anti stop-and-frisk rally in Brownsville, Brooklyn when she met the stepfather of a 16-year-old Harlem boy named Alvin, who was stopped and frisked in an aggressive way.

Alvin had been stopped and frisked many times before. But during an incident on June 3, 2011, on the advice of his stepfather, he decided to secretly record the encounter on his phone.

The audio recording is about two minutes long. Voices, apparently those of police officers, can be heard cursing and threatening Alvin.

The teen repeatedly asks the officers why he is being stopped. In response, one officer threatens to break his arm and another tells him he is being stopped because he is a "[expletive] mutt."

It is the only known audio of a hostile stop, and it resonates with critics of the NYPD's controversial policy, including some current and former members of the force who say it is being misapplied.

Retired NYPD Detective Carlton Berkley said the problem isn't the stop-and-frisk itself; it is the pressure put on police officers to make a certain amount of them.

"Stop-and-frisk protects the police officer and it also assists the police officer in doing their job." Berkley said he used stop-and-frisk legally in his 20 years on the force, "(But) the stop-and-frisk that is going on right now is a quota."

"What they [police officers] are doing is profiling," Berkley continued. "They are coming in the minority neighborhoods and going up to blacks and Latinos, violating them by searching their purses, bags or catching them in the buildings they live in."

Although Berkley retired nine years ago he has seen what he describes as some unnecessary and aggressive stops. Berkley believes the way to help prevent them is to do away with quotas and let police officers just do their jobs.

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, there were 685,724 stops in 2011 - an increase of 14 percent from 2010. These stops were spread unevenly

among 76 precincts. NYCLU's 2011 data report stated, "Though frisks are to be conducted only when an officer reasonably suspects the person has a weapon that might endanger officer safety, 55.7 percent of those stopped were frisked. Of those frisked, a weapon was found only 1.9 percent of the time."

A rookie NYPD officer who asked that his name not be used, since he is not authorized to speak to the media, told that his precinct does not have quotas but he has heard that they exist in some departments. And he noted that as a teenager, he himself was stopped under the stop-and-frisk policy.

"Sometimes when I stop people they tell me 'You're racist' and I tell them 'Look, I have been stopped too,'" the officer said. "I don't mistreat them unless they get out of hand and I have to take action."

He said listening to Alvin's audio was difficult, "To [hear] something like that is a disgrace," he said.

Stop-and-frisk has become a lightning rod for city officials. On June 17, 2012, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at a Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn concerning the reduction of crime and improving police-community relations. He said, "Innocent people who are stopped can be treated disrespectfully. That is not acceptable. If you've done nothing wrong, you deserve nothing but respect and courtesy from the police. Police Commissioner Kelly and I both believe we can do a better job in this area - and he's instituted a number of reforms to do that."

Some of these reforms introduced by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly include prohibiting racial profiling and having an executive officer in each precinct review submitted stop-and-frisk reports. Kelly also incorporated a new course, which offers additional training for officers on determining when and how to conduct a lawful stop. He also made a point on expanding NYPD's community outreach efforts - including working on a program that helps create positive interactions between members of the department and inner-city youth who have had previous encounters with the police by using performance art and conversation workshops.

But Bloomberg and Kelly have defended the core practice of conducting stops and point to dropping rates of violent crimes as support. From 2000 to 2011, murder rates have dropped more than 23 percent, according to NYPD data.

"We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives," Bloomberg said before another Brooklyn congregation this past June. In an appearance in Queens the next month, he took aim at one of the practice's fiercest critics.

"If the NYCLU is allowed to determine policing strategies in our city, many more children will grow up fatherless and many more children will not grow up at all," he said.

Even with reforms, stop-and-frisk is now being challenged in a federal lawsuit, David Floyd et al v. The City of New York. The case involves a 2008 class action lawsuit that was filed against the NYPD by four black men who say they were racially profiled and unlawfully stopped. The trial is set to start in March 2013.

The New York City Council has also gotten involved. There was a hearing in October 2012 to discuss the Community Safety Act, which consists of bills that would change the way officers conduct stop-and-frisks. Some of these bills include requiring officers to explain a person's right to refuse a search when there is no warrant or probable cause, get consent for the search, requiring the officer to give a reason for the search, and creating an independent inspector general's office that would oversee the NYPD.