Stopping and Frisking... Cops

If you're a cop, you just do it. Routinely. You stop people, you frisk and question people. You do it all the time. In fact, if you were an NYPD officer between 2004 and the middle of last year, you and your co-workers did this a whopping 4.43 million times.

It's reasonable to ask whether these officers know what it's like to be stopped, questioned, and frisked, especially as an innocent young black or Hispanic male.

Years ago, the San Diego Police Department attempted to learn the effects of "field interrogation," or stop-and-frisk, on both crime suppression and community-police relations. We wanted our cops to know what it felt like to be on the receiving end of the practice.

In the summer of '73, we flew a total of 25 officers from San Diego to San Jose, five at a time. Every morning we headed to the San Jose International Airport, dropped off the previous night's beat cops, picked up another five.

The officers showed up, unarmed, in casual clothes, carrying a phony driver's license (with official police ID hidden in a shoe). We spent hours on safety issues and the vetting of individual "cover stories" before driving at dusk to specific locations and depositing the officers on the streets.

They hung around parking lots, liquor stores, closed gas stations, areas that might arouse suspicion -- and trigger a spontaneous stop by San Jose officers. (Through an arrangement with that department's brass, a patrol unit was dispatched -- "check a suspicious person" -- if necessary, to ensure that all SDPD officers were afforded the opportunity to be stopped, patted down, and interrogated.)

At the end of the night, before we returned to the hotel for debriefing, we turned on tape recorders and interviewed the San Diego officers, independently. I will never forget their reactions, most of which could be summed up in a single word: fear.

A sampling, reconstructed from memory (capturing the essence, not verbatim quotes): My mouth went dry... my knees were shaking... all I could see was that gun on his hip... I know it's irrational -- I mean, I'm a cop -- but when that police car swooped down on me I thought I was a goner...

When the officers had all returned to San Diego, we filed into a classroom and heard from experts in law, officer safety, interpersonal communication, cultural competence. Important, relevant topics. But nothing had a greater impact than the experiential learning in San Jose.

Lost in the legal and political drama of New York's failed defense of its stop-and-frisk policies is the reality, the power of routine. And the absence of empathy for those who are unlawfully stopped and questioned, many repeatedly.

That handful of cops in San Diego got the message: You cannot, by law or department policy, stop and question people without a reasonable suspicion that they have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime, nor can you pat them down without a reasonable suspicion that they are armed and presently dangerous.

Our officers studied "Terry v. Ohio," reading the Supreme Court's virtual love letter to a 62-year-old Cleveland detective by the name of Martin McFadden, a cop whose able and courageous police work made "good law."

Unfortunately, NYPD ignored this law and, in the process violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution. Perhaps if Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly could put themselves in the shoes of an innocent young black man, whose skin color has been criminalized by the city, they would understand how to use the legitimate public safety tool that is stop-and-frisk.