Even as the city touts lower numbers of stop and frisks and legal advocates claim victory with a 2013 federal ruling against the NYPD's overuse of the tactic, people far from the mayor's press conferences and the offices of civil rights attorneys are continuing to be stopped by cops.
Last month I spoke to a few members of a Puerto Rican family in Spanish Harlem who were livid about how the police were constantly harassing them on their block. Nancy Morales, 47, told me about how her nephew, Eddie, had been targeted and arrested by plainclothes officer after they had seen him hanging out with a well-known cop-watcher from the neighborhood, Steve Cruz, who is also a relative.
Cruz was hanging out in front of a building with Eddie and a small group of men. Two undercover detectives, both well known to Cruz, kept driving by in their unmarked. After circling the block a few more times, the cops approached Eddie inside a corner bodega after Cruz left for the night. Eddie was at the store to pick up things for a baptism party the family was throwing upstairs in the family's longtime apartment.
The cops stopped him, frisked him and arrested him when they found a small knife. Morales says that her nephew, 19, had come home from his job at a Nike factory that day -- one that requires him to cut open boxes all night. Cops didn't want to hear it when Eddie's parents, both city workers, showed up at the stationhouse to demand Eddie's release. The arresting officers, who the parents said they recognized as being having been disrespectful to them during that summer's 116th street Puerto Rican Day Festival, can be seen on video dismissing the parents and trying to avoid giving them their names.
You'd probably avoid giving your name too if you're already notorious in the area for being a pair of aggressive white cops in a predominantly Puerto Rican and Mexican neighborhood. Cruz has run into them plenty of times on his copwatch patrols pulling over motorists for no apparent reason. In the neighborhood they've been nicknamed "Spongebob and Patrick" and they have a reputation for jumping out of their cars when they see groups of young men of color.
Morales and her family have had to deal with cowboy cops in the neighborhood plenty of times. Earlier this year, before her nephew was arrested by Spongebob and Patrick, uniformed cops from the 25th precinct charged through Morales' building on 116th, where she and her family have lived for over 15 years. The cops marched up and down the stairs claiming they were responding to a call about noise. When they couldn't find any problems they summonsed Morales' young daughter for smoking in the hallway outside of where the family was having a family reunion, Morales says. On their way out they stopped and summonsed one of Morales' other nephews for jaywalking. Morales says she believes the cops that night were also harassing the family because of their connection to Cruz.
Eddie, who coincidentally had just taken a court officer exam and was set to begin a new job at a car dealership, is now facing a weapons charge for carrying a work knife -- which had a blade about three inches long. Cruz, 46, notes that that kind of charge can be "devastating" for a young person and "can hinder him from getting a job." Other young men in her family, Morales says, have also been randomly stopped by cops in the neighborhood while doing mundane things, like getting diapers from the store.
While Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned to end the stop and frisk era, which had reached a high of almost 700,000 documented stops in 2011, the tactic has persisted -- but at lower numbers. The de Blasio administration constantly points to the numbers (a little over 46,000 last year) as proof that the mayor has carried out his campaign promise to reform the police department, even though a decline in the numbers actually began in former mayor Michael Bloomberg's last year. Of course any numbers should be taken with a grain of salt since they are strictly self-reported statistics provided by the NYPD itself.
Also, the percentage of those stopped and frisked (84% in 2014) mirror the last two years of the Ray Kelly and Mike Bloomberg era (87% in 2012 and 85% in 2013), while the vast majority (82% in 2014) are still found to be completely innocent of any wrongdoing. I often ask myself if it's possible to so dramatically reduce the overall stop and frisk numbers and still produce virtually the same racially skewed rates.
A federally-appointed monitor tasked with guiding the city through supposed reforms, meanwhile, seems to think cops simply need better instructions in their patrol guides.
In Eddie's case, he'd still be counted as a successful stop and frisk since his small work knife seemingly justified the stop for anyone unfamiliar with the details of what happened. Laws in New York around even the smallest of knives have been criticized for ensnaring all types of working class people -- construction workers, plumbers, etc. -- under "gravity knife" interpretations that have made the legality of knives dubious at best.
As far as the supposed demise of stop and frisk, Cruz says police have changed their style, if not their aims, as public opinion turned against the tactic. "They pick their spots. Hidden, dark spots like Park avenue [along the Metro North elevated train]... those quiet blocks. They know people are out there pulling out their cameras, things have changed, so they try to get people in isolated areas."
Cruz has also filmed other forms of police stops that don't qualify as stop and frisk proper, like fishing expeditions police perform by pulling people off of buses to check fare payment receipts (on certain express buses in the city you get a receipt before boarding--a virtual set-up in poor communities). He recently filmed housing cops from PSA5, deceased officer Randolph Holder's precinct, arresting a man off of a bus (which is a strange place for housing cops to operate) over an apparent non-payment of the $2.75 bus fare.
"It's still happening, it's just not being documented," says Jose LaSalle. LaSalle is one of the city's longtime copwatchers and was part of the movement against stop and frisk during the Bloomberg years. He's been arrested and surveilled by law enforcement authorities for protesting police brutality. He insists little has changed on the street.
"Copwatching is the only real documentation that exists."