New York City’s Police Department continues to have a problem with the “reasonable” part of “reasonable suspicion.”
The department’s overuse of stop-and-frisk tactics, which I have discussed before, continues to face a variety of challenges throughout the city. Opponents have presented evidence that the policies as currently practiced are an exercise in racial profiling and an infringement of innocent citizens’ peace and privacy.
Ten percent to 15 percent of such stops occur in housing projects, with police arresting those who do not prove to the officers’ satisfaction that they are residents or legitimate guests. The Bronx district attorney’s office has now taken a strong position on these cases, refusing to prosecute them until a prosecutor interviews the arresting officer to evaluate the case’s legitimacy.
Jeannette Rucker, the chief of arraignments for the Bronx DA, informed the NYPD in a letter that the prosecutors’ goal is to prevent “tenants and invited guest from being prosecuted unlawfully.”
The worry is not unfounded. According to The New York Times, the police arrested 16,000 people on trespassing charges in public housing between 2009 and 2011. Rucker wrote that she had received numerous complaints from defense attorneys, claiming those arrested were demonstrably not trespassers. About two years ago, prosecutors in Brooklyn expressed a similar concern.
Rucker’s letter was also filed recently in federal court, as part of a lawsuit brought by Legal Aid and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenging trespass arrests in New York.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly responded with a letter directly to Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson. Kelly said that Rucker overstated the issue, and that no misconduct had been uncovered. However, he also said that the legal basis for trespassing arrests would be addressed in precinct- and bureau-level training sessions.
Those outside the police department brass are not so quick to dismiss the concerns of Johnson and his staff. Meera Joshi, a deputy executive director for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, said in a memo that many officers wrongly believed that they could stop and question anyone inside public housing. In fact, officers who patrol the city’s projects – or anywhere else – are required under court decisions to have a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime in order to make such a stop.
Kudos to Johnson and his staff for insisting on integrity in a stop-and-frisk epidemic that patently lacks it. The citywide wave of intrusive and unjustified stops is bad enough; unwarranted prosecutions would further add to the offense. While the process of challenging the stop-and-frisk policy itself grinds on, the DA is acting responsibly in trying to ensure that Bronx citizens who have committed no offenses do not face the time, expense and risk of defending against unwarranted arrests and merit-less prosecutions.