Pockets of City See Higher Use of Force During Police Stops

 

As reported by The New York Times:

The crowded neighborhoods of the West Bronx come alive at night. Residents, young and old, cluster around door stoops. Teenagers fill playground basketball courts. Police officers from the nearby 44th and 46th Precincts patrol the streets, from time to time stopping and frisking young men, mostly black and Latino. And when they do, statistics show, they use physical force far more often than the police do anywhere else in the city.

The New York City Police Department has come under increased scrutiny in recent years over the racial disparities and the sheer volume of street stops it makes under its “stop, question and frisk” policy, a crime-fighting technique under which officers stop people they reasonably believe are committing or about to commit a crime. Last year, the police made a record 680,000 stops, more than 80 percent of those people black or Latino. A federal judge this summer approved a class-action lawsuit accusing the department of using race as a basis for the stops.

But often overlooked is how frequently police officers use some level of physical force in these encounters. People who have been stopped say that if they show the slightest bit of resistance, even verbally, they can find themselves slammed against walls, forced to the ground and, on rarer occasions, with officers’ guns pointed at their heads.

The police used some level of physical force in more than one in five stops across the city last year, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In the West Bronx, the rate was more than double that. Yet the high level of force seldom translated into arrests, raising questions among black and Latino leaders about whether officers were using enough discretion before making the stops in the first place, much less before resorting to force.

The four precincts with the highest use of force — the 32nd in Upper Manhattan, the 44th and 46th in the Bronx and the 115th in Jackson Heights, Queens — all include or have included what the police call “impact zones,” violent pockets that the police routinely flood with officers, often in their first assignment out of the academy, in an effort to suppress crime. That combination of putting inexperienced officers in the worst neighborhoods may be one reason that the use of force is so high, residents said. And the encounters, they added, while apparently not leading to a higher number of physical injuries, do create lasting feelings of resentment and a distrust of officers.

“I feel sometimes a lot of the rookies that come out don’t have the proper training, and it’s actually a fear factor on their part,” said Felipe Carrion, 42, who runs a barbershop on the Grand Concourse in the 44th Precinct. “They’re actually afraid of getting hurt themselves.”

Two months ago, Mr. Carrion said, he was standing outside his shop when two officers confronted him.

“They asked me what I was doing in front of the shop and I said I was the owner,” he recalled. “They said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re not the owner. Let’s see some ID.’ ”

But as Mr. Carrion reached for his identification, the officers shoved him against the wall.

“I was like, ‘You’re using police brutality. You’re not supposed to be doing that. Let me show you ID.’ ”

The officers calmed down after he showed them his identification, but not before shoving him against the wall again and searching him, he said. Both officers, he said, “looked like they were right out of the academy.”

The Times interviewed dozens of people in the 32nd, 44th, 46th and 115th Precincts who told stories of physical encounters with the police. Many of the people interviewed said they had been stopped multiple times without any force being used. But if they displayed any resistance, even verbally, like asking why they were being stopped, the police sometimes got rough. Corroborating their stories is difficult because police data does not name those stopped or the officers making the stops.

Police officials defend the stops as an effective crime deterrent. They played down The Times’s findings about use of force, saying that the only reason the four precincts had such high levels was because officers there checked a box marked “hands on suspect” more often on the form they are required to fill when conducting stops. Other boxes include “suspect on wall” and “suspect on ground.” Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, said “hands on suspect” was a subjective category that “may be reported anytime the officer’s hand comes into physical contact with the subject.”

“This could occur during a frisk or to guide a suspect to the sidewalk,” he wrote in an e-mail.

But John A. Eterno, a former New York Police captain who used to train officers on thestop-and-frisk tactic, disputed that, saying officers are trained to check the box only “whenever some sort of force is used to control the situation, or to make sure that either the officer’s safety or somebody else’s safety is maintained.”

Dr. Eterno, who retired in 2003 and is now a criminologist at Molloy College on Long Island, added, “You could frisk a person without any use of force at all.”

The 46th Precinct has about 128,000 residents and includes the predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods of University Heights, Morris Heights and Fordham. Officers used force in 58 percent of stops last year, the highest rate of any of the city’s 76 precincts, according to The Times’s analysis. Yet, just 3 percent of stops that involved force resulted in an arrest — the lowest rate in the city. By contrast, officers in the 111th Precinct in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens, which is 87 percent white and Asian, were the least likely to apply force, using it in 4.7 percent of stops. Yet 40 percent of those stops ended in an arrest.

It was in the 46th Precinct that Christopher Graham said he was stopped by two officers last winter as he and a friend were leaving his friend’s apartment building. The officers guided them to the wall of the building and began frisking them, Mr. Graham, 19, said. When the officer got to his groin area, Mr. Graham flinched, he said.

“I said, ‘Whoa, what are you doing?’ ” Mr. Graham recalled. “The cop put his hand on the back of my cap and, boom, smashed my head into the wall of the apartment, for no reason.”

The resulting gash sent blood gushing down his cheek and took six stitches to close, he said. Mr. Graham, who was neither arrested nor issued a summons in the stop, still bears a scar next to his left eye.

Over the previous six years through 2011, officers in the 44th Precinct led the city in force used, applying it in 54 percent of all stops, more than double the city average of 23 percent over that period. In 2010, officers there used force in more than 6 out of every 10 stops. The 32nd Precinct in Central Harlem and the 115th Precinct in Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens — also predominantly black or Hispanic — had among the city’s highest rates as well. Yet in each of these precincts, arrests when force was used were lower than the city average of 13 percent.

City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who represents the West Bronx, called the numbers “alarming.”

“If indeed they were resisting arrest, or if there were any other kinds of crimes being committed that would call for that kind of aggressiveness, you would expect to see a correlation in arrests,” he said. “Instead, we see the total opposite.”

Police officials also noted that complaints filed last year with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent panel that investigates complaints of excessive force, were at the lowest level since 2003, and only a tiny fraction of those were substantiated. But many people interviewed by The Times said they had either never heard of the board, or did not believe complaining would do any good. Those interviewed said the use of force seldom led to physical injuries.

The presence of impact squads in high-crime areas is not enough to explain why force is used so often in some precincts. The 73rd Precinct in Brownsville, Brooklyn, has the city’s highest violent crime rate, and the police stop residents at nearly three times the rate as in the 44th and 46th Precincts. Yet the police used force in only 14 percent of stops in Brownsville last year, well below the city average.

State Senator José R. Peralta, a Democrat of Queens whose district includes the 115th Precinct, said he was already concerned by the high number of stops in the area. But he said he was surprised to learn, from a Times reporter, how many of those encounters involved physical force.

“Those are very troubling statistics,” he said. The community has some pockets of high crime, he added, but the overall amount does not correspond “to the extent of the force being used.”

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Publication date: 
Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 00:00