MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And now to a domestic story we've been following, a controversial law enforcement practice that some think has made city streets safer, that others say makes minorities a target for police harassment. It's called stop and frisk. When we first discussed this issue, we told you the story of Leonardo Blair. He's an African-American reporter for the New York Post who was stopped and questioned by New York City police last November while walking home after parking his car. He protested the stop, was handcuffed and arrested. He was later released, but before he was released he was given summonses for disobeying a lawful order and making unreasonable noise.
Last Friday, a judge dismissed the two citations. Meanwhile, the New York Police Department released data showing that nearly half a million such stops occurred last year, mainly involving African-Americans and Hispanics. With us to talk about this, David Harris. He's a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He joins us from WDUQ in Pittsburg; and in our New York Bureau, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Welcome to you both. Thanks for speaking with us.
Mr. DAVID HARRIS (University of Pittsburgh): Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Mr. Harris, first, could you define stop and frisk for us. And then Ms. Lieberman, I want to ask you to do the same.
Mr. HARRIS: Michel, the idea of stop and frisk is a temporary detention by the police in order to investigate if a crime is afoot and whether this person is involved. It then involves a cursory search of the person's outer clothing to see if they might be armed. This is not a new tactic. This goes back in the law at least 40 years to the case of Terry vs. Ohio and well beyond that.
This occurs in public. Police officers typically will see somebody walking along and they must have some reasonable fact-based suspicion that the person is involved in some crime and might be armed before they can temporarily detain them, question them, and pat them down.
MARTIN: Okay, let's...
Mr. HARRIS: That's how we know stop and frisk now.
MARTIN: Okay. Donna let me ask you the same question, Ms. Lieberman, let me ask you the same question. Do you agree with that definition, and what do you consider to be a reasonable basis for these kinds of stops?
Ms. DONNA LIEBERMAN (New York Civil Liberties Union): Well, yes, that's a good definition of stop and frisk. The important point is that the police have to have some fact-based suspicion in order to detain somebody and require them to answer questions and be subjected to a pat-down.
MARTIN: Obviously the question here, and we're going to come back after a short break. So I'm going to interrupt you, Mr. Harris, at some point. But the obvious question here is, the contention is that only certain people are stopped and that they are being stopped based on who they are as opposed to what they are doing.
Mr. HARRIS: Well, I've heard that many, many times, and there is some statistical evidence to suggest both in New York and in other places that that does occur. Sometimes people will be stopped not because there is suspicion that they are involved in some kind of criminal conduct that's either happening or is about to happen, but because they are out of place.
The important thing is that police need to distinguish between conduct and appearance and between conduct and simply being out of place. It's okay to be unusual. That doesn't make you suspicious. There has to be some factual basis that tells officers that the conduct is suspicious and it indicates criminal activity is afoot.
MARTIN: Where is the line?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, it's a very difficult line to draw and we certainly don't expect our officers to be right in every instance. Nobody would expect them to be 100 percent accurate and usually the studies indicate they only find criminal activity or make an arrest in something like 10 to 15 percent of the cases. So only about one in seven at best. So we don't expect police officers to simply, to read minds.
What we expect them to do is in good faith to look for conduct, not for appearance, to look for behavior and not for the fact that people may not be in their own neighborhoods. That alone does not make them suspicious and that is what from time (unintelligible) minority communities have often said, this tactic gets used against them because they are considered more suspicious just based on who they are or based on the fact that they are not in their own neighborhoods but in somebody else's.
MARTIN: David Harris is a law professor at the University of Pittsburg. We are also joined by Donna Lieberman. She's executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York ACLU. They're going to stay with us. We're going to talk more about stop and frisk in just a moment.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, he survived Katrina. Now he's learning his FEMA-issued trailer might be making him sick. How New Orleans resident Gralen Banks is coping. But first we're going to continue our conversation about stop and frisk. It's a controversial law enforcement practice that some consider racial profiling. And to talk about this we are joined by David Harris. He's a law professor at the University of Pittsburg; and in our New York bureau, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Donna Lieberman, do you consider this a useful law enforcement practice?
Ms. LIEBERMAN: You know, stop and frisk is not a problem per se, it's how the police departments are using stop and frisk to engage in racial profiling. Here in New York City we have seen a five-fold increase just since 2002 in the number of stops and frisks and we've also seen the remarkable disproportion in who's targeted for stop and frisk tactics. As David said, you know, only about one in ten of the stops results in arrest or a summons. But you have hundreds of thousands of black people on the streets of New York City who are stopped for absolutely no reason at all.
And an encounter with the police department is not a zero-sum operation. It's a terribly traumatic experience more often than not. You're stopped, thrown up against the wall. And it doesn't just happen on the streets. It happens in the subways. A recent Daily News article documented that we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of stop and frisk encounters in the subways, a ten-fold increase just in the past couple of years, at the same time that we're seeing a decline in crime. And here too we see an incredible disproportion in who gets stopped.
Ms. LIEBERMAN: Blacks and Hispanics are ten times as likely or eight times as likely to be stopped than white people. And the same is true in the subways and the same is true in terms of arrest for minor offenses like marijuana.
MARTIN: Okay. Let's hold on one second. To your point, Ms. Lieberman, that this is a traumatic experience, this is a clip from our interview with Leonardo Blair when he talked to us about his experience of being stopped on his way home from work. And this is what he said.
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Mr. LEONARDO BLAIR (New York Post): What are you doing coming from that car? And I turned around. I wasn't sure. I was so shocked by the question because I knew that, you know, that's my car. And I said, what? And immediately Officer Casteo, he jumps out of the car and he's in my face, almost spitting in my face. He said to me, do you understand English? He's shouting. Answer the question.
MARTIN: Now, Mr. Harris obviously - obviously the reporter goes on to say this is a very degrading experience to him. It was very upsetting. He knew that it was his car. He felt that he was treated very rudely and inappropriately. But as Donna Lieberman also pointed out, the crime rate in New York is at a historic low. So the question I think would be does the benefit outweigh the imposition on some individuals?
Mr. HARRIS: Well that is a good question. But we can't forget that the cost is often hidden here, because we only see in court the cases of those where evidence was recovered, where a gun was found, where marijuana was found, something like that. What we don't see are the overwhelming majority of cases in which nothing was found and instead people are left with the overwhelming impression that they were stopped and maybe not for a good reason.
Now, a way for police to change that cost-benefit balance, at least to some degree, is to be much more selective about who they stop and frisk. Another way to address that, of course, is to do things in a way - I wouldn't say a nice way, because being stopped and frisked is just not a nice thing to happen to anybody, but in a way that is more police, that explains things to people and does not abuse them.
I think a lot of the complaints that I hear about stops and frisks, let's lay the statistics out for a minute and just take it on the individual basis. They have to do with how people were treated when they were stopped and frisked. It is never, never a pleasant thing to have this happen to you out on the street, but there is no reason necessarily that the officer had to get into Mr. Blair's face and shout at him that way. And I have seen other police officers talk about this, train about this. It doesn't have to be like this.
So if you want the benefits, one thing you can do is reduce the cost, because it does prevent some crime. It does get some guns off the street, there's no question about that. If you overuse the tactic, though, and use it poorly, you will have many more and higher costs, and that's not free. The police department has to pay for that in terms of its relationship with its citizens. That's not just public relations. That's the willingness of people to cooperate with police and see policing as something that benefits them rather than something that is done to them.
MARTIN: Donna Lieberman, what do you say about this? How would you recommend that the police balance the desire to, you know, prevent crime and to keep the crime rate low with the trauma that some people are clearly experiencing around this practice?
Ms. LIEBERMAN: Well, I'd like to put this sort of in real terms. In New York City over - approximately one in four African-Americans has been stopped by the police in the last two years, assuming no repeats. Of course there are repeats. But that's an astounding number. And that's eight times more likely - I'm sorry, that's ten times more likely than for whites. One in four African-Americans stopped by the police for this encounter. And what's the attitude? You know, there's talk about, you know, putting a lot of police in high crime neighborhoods. But what's the attitude that they go in with?
You know, the New York Police Department sends these impact teams but not police officers that are there to build relationships with the community that will breed trust so that they know who's on the street and have relationships. Rather, they send these SWAT teams in that go in with an attitude. And I don't think that it will fix things to try to be nice, you know, about stopping one in four African-Americans over the course of two years.
Ms. LIEBERMAN: I think the police have to be much more selective and much better trained to go after suspicious activity.
Ms. LIEBERMAN: Being black is not suspicious.
MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you both so much. Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. She joins us from NPR's New York Bureau. We were also joined by David Harris. He's a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, and he joined us from member station WDUQ in Pittsburgh. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HARRIS: My pleasure, thank you.
Ms. LIEBERMAN: Thanks.