Advocates raise concerns about NYPD’s enhanced use of pedestrian stops to tamp down on guns
Gun arrests are at a 27-year high, while stop-and-frisk incidents have also surged.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has made the removal of nearly 5,000 guns from the street this year an early hallmark of his tenure, repeatedly touting the stat when discussing his policing strategies. At the same time, pedestrian stops have also surged this year, prompting advocates to raise concerns that the New York City Police Department is prioritizing a historically discriminatory – and ineffective – stop-and-frisk tactic in search of illegal weapons.
Adams took office at a time when shootings in New York City had climbed to their highest level in 15 years, part of a national trend of pandemic-era gun violence. Since then, shootings have decreased dramatically, dropping more than 30% in August compared to the same month last year, something the Adams administration has attributed to an increase in gun arrests. “The NYPD’s array of strategies to remove illegal firearms from the streets is gaining traction as reflected in the department’s seizing more than 4,880 guns year-to-date in 2022,” the NYPD said in a press release last week, while announcing 3,170 gun arrests through August, a 27-year high.
Adams made clear early in his tenure that gun control would be a top priority for his administration. Less than a month after taking office, he announced a number of strategies, including interagency collaboration to tamp down on trafficking and a revamped version of the NYPD’s disbanded anti-crime unit that had a reputation for aggressive stop-and-frisk policing.
Adams’ gun control strategy is multipronged, going beyond stop and frisk. In his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” released in January, he proposed collaboration with state police to implement checkpoints at entrances to the city, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and other bus and train stations, to intercept gun trafficking and share arrest data to log who is caught with a gun. He also proposed the use of new software and technologies to identify people carrying weapons.
But stop and frisks have increased dramatically under Adams and NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell, whom he appointed in December. Police recorded 4,116 stop-and-frisks in the second quarter of 2022, the most in any three-month period since the fourth quarter of 2015, according to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union. Arrests were made in 33% of those stops. Additional data cited by Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Samah Sisay shows guns were recovered in just 7% of those stops, she said.
“We know that something is wrong with this method and that it's not actually effective, yet it continues to be used,” Sisay said.
In another example of the NYPD’s reliance on traffic and pedestrian stops to remove guns, the unit specifically tasked with targeting illegal firearms primarily made traffic stops and seldom removed guns, according to the New York Post. Between mid-March, when the unit was deployed, and early May, the “Neighborhood Safety Teams” made at least 52 car stops, but found only three guns. Additional data obtained by City & State in April shows most of the arrests made by the Neighborhood Safety Teams were for low-level offenses, with criminal possession of a forged instrument, such as a fake ID, being the top charge.
The culmination of an enhanced focus on street stops, along with what police accountability advocates see as “tough on crime” rhetoric from Adams, has raised concerns about an over-reliance on this historically problematic policing strategy as a way to tamp down on guns.
“There's every reason to believe that the increased stops of cars and pedestrians is accounting, in part, for the increased number of guns being recovered. But we know from 20 years of this data, that stops produce a tiny, tiny number of gun recoveries,” New York Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Christopher Dunn said, noting that Fourth Amendment violations are all too common when police are motivated to make as many stops as possible. “No one's going to say that is a productive police strategy. And it's almost certainly an unlawful police strategy.”
Data also shows pedestrian stops disproportionately target minorities. Black and Latino people made up 58% and 30% of stops in the second quarter, respectively; 9% were white, according to the NYCLU.
When asked about the advocates’ concerns in using vehicle and street stops to remove guns, the NYPD pointed to its August crime stats that show a 16% increase in gun arrests in August of this year compared to last.
“Our gun seizures and gun arrests in August – and the corresponding downturn in shooting incidents – indicate a positive corner turn in our fight to stop criminals willing to carry illegal guns and brazenly use them,” Sewell said in a statement earlier this month.
Advocates say the full scope of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk initiative is unclear because the department does not always record all encounters, despite being under the purview of a federal monitor. The monitor reported in May that the NYPD continues to underreport stops but “has made significant strides” regarding stop and frisk, including increases in justifiable stops and the use of body-worn cameras. However, the monitor found that 29% of stops made by the NYPD last year were not properly documented, something the department said was, in part, an effect of the pandemic.
“The mayor is pleased to get even one gun off the street … I get that. But you have to weigh the benefits against the harm. So are you wrongfully stopping people? Is it disproportionately racially biased?” said Judge Shira Scheindlin, a retired federal court judge who ruled in 2013 that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies were unconstitutional.
Despite the case, cops still have significant leeway when it comes to validating the reasons for stops, and in the most egregious cases, they can devolve into violence.
“The encounters become very aggressive and then you have people getting charged with resisting arrest or obstructing governmental administration,” said Yung-Mi Lee, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services. “The police can search you using any ruse to come up with the probable cause to stop someone. It could be a minor traffic violation.”
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