NYPD Justifies 'Stop and Frisk' Policing

New York Police Department deputy commissioner Paul Browne responds to recent allegations by New York Post reporter Leonardo Blair. Browne defends "stop and frisk" tactics as legitimate policing.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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Today, we'll tell you about a program to help out teachers and school kids around the country. You get to choose. That's next.

But first, we're going to continue a conversation about New York's stop and frisk program. We just heard from New York Post reporter Leonardo Blair about his recent encounter with the police. He wrote about it in Sunday's paper.

We're joined now by New York Police Department deputy commissioner for public information, Paul Browne.

Mr. Browne, thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. PAUL BROWNE (Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, New York Police Department): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, commissioner, I know you heard Mr. Blair talk about his encounter. What do you know about the officers' side of the story? What was it that Mr. Blair was doing that attracted their attention in their account?

Mr. BROWNE: Well, they're in a - they patrol in part of the Bronx -incidentally, I know very well, because I grew up there - where there had been an increase in break-ins. The crime is down throughout the city, but in this particular area, there'd been an increase in larceny, specifically break-ins to parked cars.

This is a black and Latino neighborhood. The officers were patrolling this small sector - when I talk about a sector, we're talking maybe about six or seven square blocks. In that small sector, there had been 27 cars broken into. The neighbors, again, these are black and Hispanic people, whose cars are being broken into…

MARTIN: As were the officers, clearly, who were also African-American and Latino.

Mr. BROWNE: Correct. And they're looking for the police to try to do something about car break-ins, among other things. But that's what one of the things these officers are looking for that night. They come on the street. It's isolated, except for one person, a young man, leaving from the direction of a car - they don't see him parking - with a bag in his hand. They roll up on him and say, what were you doing coming from the car? And I think Blair says that's exactly what happened. His response was what? And they said - the officers said don't you understand English? He responded in Spanish, which I think was an outrageous, condescending thing to do to a Latino officer.

But the officer, to his credit, then proceeded to take that at face value and question him in Spanish. And obviously, he, at some point, you know, said he speaks English. So I think that you have a - the police making a legitimate right of inquiry. And to describe this as racial profiling is absurd when you have a black officer and a Latino officer in a largely black and Latino neighborhood responding to complaints from black and Latino car owners. And they have one person on an isolated street leaving the vicinity of a car. They're just asking him, what were you doing coming from the car? He had the option of saying I just parked my car there and went - and I live nearby or I'm living with relatives nearby and then identifying himself. Instead, he refused to answer questions. What he didn't tell you was he tightly folded his arms with his hands under his armpits and refused repeated directives to show his hands.

MARTIN: Forgive me, but we weren't able to get that part of the conversation on the air. But after we got off the air, he told us that that's not true. He says that that part of the conversation simply never happened, that he would put his hand under armpits. He says he knows the police say he did that. He says that never happened. I don't want to commit to that.

Mr. BROWNE: I believe the officers' account. He had two officers account of no reason not to. It doesn't change the fact that he was being uncooperative and not responding to legitimate inquiry.

MARTIN: How do you respond to his question about tone? He says it may have been a legitimate inquiry, but the way they spoke to him. And this is - certainly, I'm sure you've heard this before. He says that they made him feel like he was garbage, that he was not a citizen, that he was a suspect, and he's a suspect before he was citizen. How do you respond to that?

Mr. BROWNE: Well, you know, (unintelligible) of it. I can relate to his story at many accounts. In addition to living there, I also went to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as a young man when it was - when the city was a little more dangerous than it is now. But Columbia was very good at instilling elitism. And, you know, we felt very sure of ourselves, and that there was a tendency among the elite, you know, colleges that view cops as just working-class stiffs, and how dare they stop and inquire of me. So I think that has to be taken into consideration.

MARTIN: I understand your point, but I don't - commissioner, with respect, I don't believe you answered my question. His question was, and he said that he felt was he treated rudely.

Mr. BROWNE: Well, (unintelligible) what are you doing coming from the car?

MARTIN: Hm?

Mr. BROWNE: They asked him, what are you doing coming from the car? He refused to answer that question.

MARTIN: Okay. According to the Post and to a recent study by the RAND Corporation that was commissioned by the NYPD, complaints about the department have risen dramatically. To what do you attribute that?

Mr. BROWNE: Well, I think what the CCRB attributes it to is the fact that it's become - what the Post account didn't say, the use of force, the most serious complaints about the police have actually declined. And what CCRB attributes it - in other words, the agency investigating these complaints and recording the inquiries attributes it to the fact that a number of years ago, they went to a system where you can make complaints by 311. They made it a lot easier. I think there's confidence in the system. Before, you had to do things by taper, go into a precinct to do it. Now, you can just pick up and dial 311, file a complaint on the phone - by phone, by Internet, numerous ways. Since they went to 311, the complaints got a record.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, that's a Citizen Complaint Review Board that you're talking about.

Mr. BROWNE: Yeah. That's right.

MARTIN: Okay. Sir, we only have 45 seconds left. But so clearly, you were excited about it, and I'm sure anybody who listens to this is excited about the violence dropping in the city. You're on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year. It's the lowest…

Mr. BROWNE: Right.

MARTIN: …level since good numbers became available, you know, 30-some years ago. I'm sure you're - 40 years ago - you're happy about that. On the other hand, you have citizens like Mr. Blair or residents complaining that they're being treated with a ham fists. Any thoughts about how that could be managed better or perhaps balanced better?

Mr. BROWNE: Well, I…

MARTIN: If, indeed, you think it needs to be?

Mr. BROWNE: I - number one, we - I don't find this account entirely credible. I don't think it tells everything he did in this case. But in any case, you do raise a good point, and Police Commissioner Kelly has introduced emergent training for all police officers when they come out of the academy and in-service training after that to listen to people who've had bad experience with the police and try to get police officers to understand them from their perspectives.

MARTIN: Paul Browne is deputy commissioner for public information for the New York Police Department. He joined us from New York.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BROWNE: You're welcome.

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