Wall Street Journal
September 5, 2013

Police Chafe at Scrutiny

As Stop-and-Frisk Numbers Plummet, Some Officers Say They Are Pulling Back


With the New York Police Department facing the prospect of a federal monitor and two new measures designed to rein in stop and frisk, a debate is growing: Will all the scrutiny cause officers to second-guess themselves on the beat?

In more than a dozen interviews across the city, current and former NYPD officers said police are more on edge as they go about their jobs. Some said they are conducting fewer stops out of fear of being accused of racial profiling. Others said they had received confusing signals from superiors and media reports about what the installation of a court-imposed federal monitor, a new inspector general and a bill banning racial profiling would mean.

"No one knows what to expect," said a patrol officer in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Like nearly all officers interviewed for this article, the officer declined to allow his name to be published because of department policy against talking to reporters without approval.

He said officers were conducting fewer stops in a historically high-crime neighborhood. "There's nobody here to protect them," he said of residents. "Proactive policing has given way to reactive policing."

Stops conducted by city police officers have declined in four of the past five quarters, beginning in 2012, a fall that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly attributed to increased training and a decline in staffing in its impact zones, high-crime areas of the city that in shows of force are flooded with officers who are early in their careers.

Officers interviewed for this article offered another reason: They are concerned about being scrutinized for making stops.

"A few months ago you wouldn't have a problem stopping someone," said one officer in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, who said he is now more cautious when performing the procedure. "But now, you're going to second-guess yourselves."

Under federal court rulings, officers can stop, question and sometimes frisk people they reasonably suspect are involved in criminal activity. Critics say the tactic has been targeted unfairly at minorities, and the large majority of people stopped during Mr. Bloomberg's three terms have been black or Hispanic.

A federal judge has ruled that stop and frisk, as conducted by the NYPD, has violated people's constitutional rights and ordered a federal monitor to oversee the tactic. The City Council passed a law creating an inspector general for the police and a law allowing racial-profiling lawsuits in state court against police.

Mr. Bloomberg and Commissioner Raymond Kelly have said the stops are conducted constitutionally and have helped produce historic reductions in violent crime. Mr. Kelly has said the department has made no changes in stop-and-frisk policy in response to the heightened oversight. The NYPD's chief spokesman, John McCarthy, said New York City police officers "are professionals who perform to the best of their ability and they have done a tremendous job reducing crime in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs."

Officers said the new racial-profiling law, which the city's law department is seeking to overturn, scared them the most.

In the South Bronx, a rookie officer said she and her colleagues weren't taking stop-and-frisk report forms—known as 250s—with them as they go out on patrol. "When I was in the academy, they taught us the correct way [to do stop and frisk]. They told us about seeing a bulge or if there's suspicion, you basically had a right to stop a person," said the officer. "But now, everyone is scared about getting a lawsuit."

To be sure, some officers said they were going about their jobs today just as they had always done. One officer walking the beat in the Jamaica section of Queens said he is doing as many stops today as he always has.

"Nothing is set in stone yet so we're just waiting to see what happens," the officer said.

Police union leaders have told rank-and-file officers to take caution. "Lawsuits against police officers will take a very serious toll and will, tragically, impact public safety by putting our members in a defensive, reactive position," Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Union, said in an email response to questions.

Mr. Bloomberg raised the issue of officer morale after the council overrode his vetoes. "We don't need another level of supervision," he said, calling the new levels of oversight a "disaster." "Cops in a situation have to know what the rules are and who they work for. It's easy to sit there and criticize when your life isn't on the line everyday as the police are."

Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD officer who now lectures at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it isn't unusual to see shifts in morale during times of increased scrutiny, but police usually come back from bouts with low morale. Predictions of officers second-guessing themselves after the Amadou Diallo shooting in 1999, for instance, didn't lead to sustained spikes in crime. Mr. O'Donnell said police officers remain among the most respected professions, even during times of increased scrutiny. "They rebound because they perform a really vital service that touches on every area of the city," Mr. O'Donnell said. "Most New Yorkers need them."

Write to Pervaiz Shallwani at Pervaiz.Shallwani@dowjones.com