NEW YORK (Reuters) - Telly Hudgins has been stopped and frisked by the police too many times to count in the Brownsville, New York, public housing project where he lives. One occasion sticks in his memory. “I had my pajamas on and my slippers on and I‘m emptying my garbage” at the trash chute. “They asked me for ID to prove I lived there. Who walks around in their pajamas with ID?” asked the black, 35-year-old counselor for the mentally handicapped. He says he complained about the search and was issued a summons for disorderly conduct.
Deborah Richardson, 60, a black postal worker, has delivered mail in east Brooklyn’s Brownsville for 14 years. She takes a different view of the New York Police Department’s contentious Stop, Question and Frisk policy. “I’d like to see more stops and frisks,” she said, leaning out of her postal truck. “This is a dangerous neighborhood. I won’t even go up in those monstrosities anymore,” she said, gesturing toward one of the towering housing complexes where she once pushed a mail cart. After four years of what she says was harassment from residents, many waiting for welfare checks, she got a transfer to a parcel truck delivery route.
For nearly two months the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy has drawn New York City into an emotional debate about race, policing and Fourth Amendment rights. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have fiercely defended the program against an onslaught of criticism from judges, civil rights leaders and a vocal block of Democratic politicians. It has become a defining issue for next year’s mayoral election.
For Bloomberg, an independent who will be stepping down next year after three terms, the question is central to his legacy. Having presided over an historic reduction in violent crime, he boasts that New York is “America’s safest city by far,” a place where tourists and residents can safely roam any neighborhood, even those traditionally considered dangerous, by day and most by night.
Critics, though, charge that this has come at a precious cost - the civil liberties of hundreds of thousands who are stopped and searched each year. Police stops in New York City have climbed steadily to more than 685,000 last year from nearly 161,000 in 2003. Only 12 percent of those stopped were arrested or ticketed. More than 85 percent were black or Hispanic, while they make up 51 percent of the city’s population.
A Reuters analysis of more than 3 million stops from 2006 through 2011 shows that by far the densest concentrations fell in areas of public housing, home to many of the city’s poorest families and where 90 percent of residents are black or Hispanic. Although one would expect a heavy concentration of police stops in these densely populated areas, the stop rate is disproportionate: In 2011, police stopped people in these areas at a rate more than three times higher than elsewhere in the city, the analysis found.
The study also shows that more than half the searches happened not on the streets and paths around these buildings but inside them - in stairwells, lobbies and corridors.
The analysis used mapping software to plot six years’ worth of data and identify areas where stops were clustered the most. The software also helped identify stops that occurred in public housing areas, so the nature of those stops could be analyzed and compared with stops that happened elsewhere in the city.
In some of the city’s safest neighborhoods, police make dozens of stops each year. In the most stubborn pockets of crime and poverty, police make thousands. Many residents there feel as if they are under siege - both from the high levels of crime that prompt aggressive policing and from the police activity itself.
The controversy over stop-and-frisk is playing out in neighborhoods like Brownsville and a number of other high-crime public housing communities across the city’s five boroughs, where dense clusters of red-brick public housing towers rise up across hundreds of acres. This isn’t the same pleasantly untroubled New York that millions of tourists flock to see - the New York of Fifth Avenue museums and boutiques, of Times Square lights and Greenwich Village restaurants.
Neither is it anything like the neighborhoods where New York’s prosperous and middle class live. The average family income in the public housing areas is just over $20,000, almost two and a half times lower than the city median income for 2010. According to city data, 53 percent of households have no one who is employed.
The policing contrasts are stark. In the 28-block heart of Brownsville, the stop rate was 572 per 1,000 residents last year. For young black men, the rate is far higher and can easily translate into several stops per year. Four miles away in upper-middle-class Park Slope, Brooklyn, police stopped people at a rate of 35 per 1,000 residents.
For police, the focus on public housing is elemental. One in five murders in the city last year occurred in or on the grounds of public housing, as well as one in five shootings and one in nine reported rapes. One in every four guns were seized there.
Brownsville is in NYPD Precinct 73, which last year had 14.1 violent crimes per 1,000 residents. Among the city’s 76 precincts, its violent crime rate was a close second to Precinct 41, in the Hunts Point-Longwood area of the Bronx. The rate may be significantly lower than its crack-cocaine-driven peak in 1990, but it is still almost three times the citywide rate.
Precinct 78, which encompasses most of Park Slope, had 4.1 violent crimes per 1,000 residents, 17 percent below the city rate.
Long the epicenter of NYPD stop-and-frisk activity, Brownsville was the subject of a New York Times report two years ago that found police were conducting stops there at a rate unmatched elsewhere in the city. (Disclosure: Co-author Janet Roberts worked on the New York Times story.) The Reuters analysis shows that is still true two years later.
Residents tell stories of cops peering down from rooftops, monitoring movement with a ubiquitous network of security cameras, patrolling halls and occupying lobbies.
In interviews conducted in the past few weeks, many Brownsville public housing residents claim they are regularly questioned, ticketed, often frisked and sometimes arrested on little or no pretense. They say police can be abusive, unnecessarily aggressive and indiscriminate. To these residents, civil liberties have withered with declining crime rates.
Last spring, years after the pajama incident, Hudgins stepped out of an elevator in his building as a pair of cops were getting in. As it often does on Mondays, Hudgins said, the elevator smelled of alcohol. Police stopped him, saying they suspected he was drinking alcohol from the cup in his hand. They insisted he hand over his drink, sniffed it, and told him it smelled like alcohol, Hudgins said. No, he insisted; it was a mix of iced tea and lemonade. There in the lobby of his own building, at the age of 34 and with no criminal record, Hudgins was issued two tickets - one for disorderly conduct and another for having an alcoholic beverage in an open container.
Hudgins had had enough. He filed a formal complaint with the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board. Both summonses were eventually dismissed, according to court records provided by Hudgins. “You can be stopped on any given day, for anything,” he said. “It’s humiliating.”
Police patrolling public housing enforce housing regulations, which dictate that to be inside one of its buildings you must either live there or be visiting someone. Among the almost 600,000 stops police made in or around city housing in the past six years, they conducted more based on suspicion of trespassing than for any other suspected crime, according to the Reuters analysis.
Vanessa Chandler, 47, who is black, said she has lived in city housing on Brownsville’s Sutter Avenue since she was a child, and that aggressive policing in the area is intrusive.
“If I go back to my building in the morning because I forgot my bus pass, they are on you with, ‘Why did you go into that building and back out again?’ Or if I walk outside to check the weather and go back in, it’s the same thing,” she said. “I mean, don’t you step outside to check the weather where you live, officer?”
Residents acknowledge the need for a strong police presence to counter violent crime. This is, after all, a place where many adults say they don’t leave their homes after dark. Still, the way in which the stop-and-frisk program is used weighs on them heavily.
“It’s not the stop-and-frisks that we’re upset about,” said Jay Bradley, 49, another black woman. “It’s the stupidity of the stops.”
For the police, stop-and-frisk is a vital tool on New York City’s final frontiers of gun violence, gang activity, murder and drugs. They say policing in and around places like Brownsville, where gangs engage in frequent gun battles, is a struggle. The NYPD floods areas where they detect crime spikes - known within the department as impact zones - with hundreds of officers fresh out of the police academy, energetic young cops who move through the ranks based on their performance on these early career tours.
The locations for low-level drug sales float, ghost-like, from building to building. Kids commit burglaries and robberies to prove their mettle. Teen gang members share “community” guns: The same weapon jammed behind a trash compactor one day is camouflaged in a courtyard leaf pile the next. Finding and seizing these weapons is the top priority.
For NYPD Captain Joseph Gulotta, the Italian-American commanding officer of the 73rd Precinct, stop-and-frisk is part of a larger strategy to solve crime and prevent its spread.
“This is without a doubt one of most violent precincts in the city of New York, hands down,” he said. “Has it gotten better? Absolutely. But we’re averaging a shooting a week here, and that’s way down from before.”
Gang investigators said the ranks of the larger, more structured gangs have been decimated by precisely the kind of policing that’s now under scrutiny. What’s left are fractured crews of young thugs who form and dissolve alliances weekly and square off against each other with guns - housing project versus housing project, and within each project, building versus building.
In January, Brooklyn prosecutors indicted 43 members of the Hoodstarz and Wave Gangs on second-degree murder, weapons and conspiracy charges. For 18 months, police said, their 10-block Brownsville turf war resulted in six homicides, with 38 people wounded in 32 shooting incidents. Prosecutors said the crews paid for guns by stealing and reselling cell phones.
The takedown of those two crews made Brownsville feel safer, residents and police agreed. Peace was short-lived.
For five hours last month, on Father’s Day, gunfire crackled through the streets of Brownsville again. When it was over, five people had been shot and a sixth murdered in three separate incidents in the area, blocks apart. The 25-year-old man who died that night was found riddled with 23 bullets in a public park.
Then, last Thursday night, three young men were rolling dice on a Brownsville corner around midnight when two other men approached them. One of the two fired a shot into the chest of one of the three players, killing him. Another was shot in the back as he tried to flee, and a third was slightly wounded. The attack remains unsolved.
These are the scenarios that trouble people like Gulotta and NYPD Deputy Inspector Vincent Patti, a housing unit commander.
Patti oversees 42 of the city’s most violent housing complexes - there are 334 in total - stretching from Brownsville to East New York, Brooklyn. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a day when there hasn’t been a call about a firearm,” he said.
Patti has heard the complaints from residents about police abuses. He said housing police are unique within the NYPD because they spend a lot of time inside residents’ homes, hallways and lobbies as part of their patrols.
Almost a third of the calls his unit responds to are related to domestic violence.
“That means we’re coming into your home, and we’re possibly arresting mom or dad, or brother or sister,” he said. “That alone leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.”
Patti said his police have good reasons for the stops they make. They do “vertical” patrols of most city housing structures on each shift, starting on the roofs and descending through stairways and halls, to track drug dealing and prevent burglaries.
When police see drug vials or envelopes in a stairwell, he said, they are likely to find drug sales on a nearby floor. When they stop an individual they believe is acting suspiciously, they often find there are outstanding warrants.
Patti acknowledged that infractions such as littering are enforced more aggressively on city housing grounds than in other parts of the city but said it is a quality-of-life issue the police pursue as part of their partnership with the housing department.
“I‘m not saying every person needs to be ticketed,” he said. “But I’ve seen kids finish a Snapple, standing directly in front of a garbage can, and throw the bottle on the ground.”
For Gulotta, whose grandfather grew up in turn-of-the-century Brownsville when the neighborhood was populated by Italian immigrants, stop-and-frisk is a tool, not a question for debate.
”The people I‘m talking to are the people behind closed doors at night … the good people who work hard and own businesses here, the clergy, the people that own private homes here, and they are not saying, ‘We’re living in a police state.’ They are saying the exact opposite, that we need more police work, not less.
“Violence is absolutely my first priority. I have no other choice. We can say, you know, it’s better than a previous year, but one shooting is too many,” he said. “The baseline is zero.”
The practice of stopping to question and sometimes search citizens has been a policing tool for decades, but it was first evaluated by the Supreme Court in 1968, in Terry v. Ohio.
In that case, the court came down on the side of “reasonable suspicion,” a lower standard than the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause. To stop someone, an officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime; to search, a reasonable suspicion the person is armed.
Last month a federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York on behalf of four black men who said they were racially profiled by NYPD officers who stopped and frisked them without cause. In granting the status, the judge said NYPD performance standards that have driven stop rates up in recent years may have led to “thousands of unlawful stops.”
Critics say the program constitutes racial profiling. They point to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk data, which shows that 58 percent of blacks and Hispanics stopped last year were subsequently frisked by police, an escalation that was true for only 44 percent of whites.
They also say heavy-handed policing can result in rough justice in places like Brownsville. Community leader Andre Mitchell, who runs an outreach program for young blacks called Man Up!, says that too often a stop-and-frisk can turn into multiple charges. Challenging a trespassing or loitering charge can lead to a disorderly conduct charge, and then just a few more wrong moves can add a charge of resisting arrest or even assaulting an officer, a felony. “These things can spin out of control easily,” Mitchell said.
Police deny they punish people with extra violations for questioning the validity of a stop and say the city’s high-crime populations are predominantly minorities.
Earlier this month thousands of New Yorkers marched in silence from lower Harlem down Fifth Avenue to Bloomberg’s townhouse across from Central Park, demanding an end to the practice.
Bloomberg and Kelly have acknowledged criticism of the program in recent weeks and have pledged to retrain officers and hold precinct and borough commanders to account in regular crime statistics meetings with NYPD brass. On two successive Sundays last month, Bloomberg took his defense of stop-and-frisk to black churches in Brownsville and East New York.
At the Brownsville church, Bloomberg said that “in order to prevent crime, police officers have to be able to make stops based on crime reports, not census reports.” He then read the names, ages and neighborhoods of the 10 New Yorkers murdered during the first week of June. “All 10 were young men. All 10 were black and Hispanic,” he told parishioners.
All the recent Brownsville shooting victims and suspected perpetrators both on Father’s Day and last Thursday were black, police said.
The mayor’s relations with the city’s black population are also going to be part of his legacy. In his first few years in office he worked hard to ease tensions among the city, its police force and black residents. Nearing the end of his term he has more often been accused of favoring the city’s wealthy population, which is predominantly white.
Police say they no more relish confrontational encounters with residents than those who are stopped. But they are almost unanimous in their refutation of claims that the program is racially motivated.
“It’s not a black thing,” said a young black officer who has patrolled Brownsville for two years and who was granted anonymity in return for speaking freely. “Every single day our lives are in danger. Everybody out here is in danger.”
Mitchell, who has been working as a liaison with local police here for 22 years, said both police and residents are in a difficult position.
“These guys, these new faces,” he said, referring to rookie police officers assigned to high-crime neighborhoods like Brownsville, “they are scared. They’re nervous. It’s their probationary period. And they don’t have a clue as to how to deal with the members of our community. Honestly? I worry about them too, sometimes.”
Editing by Martin Howell, Prudence Crowther and Douglas Royalty