One evening in August of 2006, I was celebrating my 18th birthday with my cousin and a friend. We were staying at my sister’s house on 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan and decided to walk to a nearby place and get some burgers. It was closed so we sat on benches in the median strip that runs down the middle of Broadway. We were talking, watching the night go by, enjoying the evening when suddenly, and out of nowhere, squad cars surrounded us. A policeman yelled from the window, “Get on the ground!”
I was stunned. And I was scared. Then I was on the ground — with a gun pointed at me. I couldn’t see what was happening but I could feel a policeman’s hand reach into my pocket and remove my wallet. Apparently he looked through and found the ID I kept there. “Happy Birthday,” he said sarcastically. The officers questioned my cousin and friend, asked what they were doing in town, and then said goodnight and left us on the sidewalk.
Less than two years later, in the spring of 2008, N.Y.P.D. officers stopped and frisked me, again. And for no apparent reason. This time I was leaving my grandmother’s home in Flatbush, Brooklyn; a squad car passed me as I walked down East 49th Street to the bus stop. The car backed up. Three officers jumped out. Not again. The officers ordered me to stand, hands against a garage door, fished my wallet out of my pocket and looked at my ID. Then they let me go.
I was stopped again in September of 2010. This time I was just walking home from the gym. It was the same routine: I was stopped, frisked, searched, ID’d and let go . . .
Last May, I was outside my apartment building on my way to the store when two police officers jumped out of an unmarked car and told me to stop and put my hands up against the wall. I complied. Without my permission, they removed my cellphone from my hand, and one of the officers reached into my pockets, and removed my wallet and keys. He looked through my wallet, then handcuffed me. The officers wanted to know if I had just come out of a particular building. No, I told them, I lived next door.
One of the officers asked which of the keys they had removed from my pocket opened my apartment door. Then he entered my building and tried to get into my apartment with my key. My 18-year-old sister was inside with two of our younger siblings; later she told me she had no idea why the police were trying to get into our apartment and was terrified. She tried to call me, but because they had confiscated my phone, I couldn’t answer.
Meanwhile, a white officer put me in the back of the police car. I was still handcuffed. The officer asked if I had any marijuana, and I said no. He removed and searched my shoes and patted down my socks. I asked why they were searching me, and he told me someone in my building complained that a person they believed fit my description had been ringing their bell.
And it’s all perfectly legal (provided the cops include boilerplate language about reasonable suspicion). These stop-and-frisks happen about 50,000 times per year in New York. Someone at Twitter pointed out that if NYPD did stop-and-frisks on Wall Street around lunchtime, they’d probably find more drugs than they could process. That would also probably put an end to the practice in a matter of days.
*MORE: Via the comments, New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield writes:
Sorry to be a stickler about stuff like this, but the test in New York comes from People v. DeBour, 40 NY2d 210 (1976), which is more restrictive than Terry.
I appreciate the correction.