Stop-and-Frisk Trial: NYPD's 'Top Stopper' Stopped Almost All Blacks, Was Never Questioned For It

Human Rights

NYPD officer Kha Dang, of the 88th precinct, made 127 street stops in the three months between July and September, making him one of the department’s “top stoppers” that quarter. None of the stops involved white people, and 90% of them involved blacks. Each of the 100-plus stops, however, was not for one person, but for an average of three.

Stop-and-frisk is supposed to be a crime-fighting tool ostensibly intended to get weapons off the street. In order to conduct a stop, officers must be able to articulate “reasonable suspicion” that the person they stopped has commited or is about to commit a crime. For a frisk, they must observe a bulge that resembles a gun, or reasonably fear for their safety. If an officer conducts a frisk and feels what he believes he is a weapon, he may remove it, but his search is limited to that area. Of the people he stopped, Kha Dang frisked 59% of them and searched 29%. Nonetheless, he uncovered no weapons, and in only one instance did he find contraband.

Charts showing Dang’s stop patterns were revealed in federal court this week, as the city’s defense called him as a witness in the class-action lawsuit Floyd v. City of New York. The lawsuit alleges that the NYPD routinely violates the 4th and 14th Amendments of New Yorkers who are stopped, questioned and sometimes frisked and/or searched because of the color of their skin. The NYPD makes well over half a million street stops a year, with upwards of 90% of them targeting blacks or Latinos. Most of those stopped are young men.

The plaintiffs allege that policy (and quotas) requiring officers to make high numbers of stops or face punishment pushes officers to conduct illegal, unnecessary street interactions. Dang testified that he never thought he would be punished for failing to meet a certain number of stops. He also said, however, that no one in the department expressed concern that 90% of his stops were for blacks. “Has anyone asked why you only stopped people of color?” plaintiffs’ attorney Bruce Corey asked Dang. Again, Dang said no.  

The city’s defense argues that police officers are not racially profiling young men of color, but responding to crime patterns and suspect descriptions. The reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a stop may be easier to prove on paper than in reality. On the form officers must fill out after completing a frisk, they often indicate vague reasons for the stop, like “furtive movements” and “high-crime area.”

Dang carefully explained to the court how he makes the decision to conduct a street stop, including analysis of crime patterns, suspect descriptions and familiarity with the neighborhood. “Whenever I have reasonable suspicion of somebody about to or ready to commit a crime, I stop them,” said Dang, echoing the law, "If I don’t feel safe, I’m gonna give him a quick frisk.”

Dang, whose paperwork indicated the vast majority of his stops were prompted by a “high-crime area,” said the fallout after a big drug bust, and gangs in the neighborhood, created a pattern of crime that required such a high number of stops. In Fort Greene park, for example, he said he heard reports of robberies and beatings.

When pressed to explain how “furtive movements” create suspicion, Dang said he spends so much time on the streets he can tell when someone might be up to something. “We see them every day but don’t stop them all the time,” he said, adding that, “Hanging out in front of a building, sitting on benches or something like that” could be an example. Judge Shira Scheindlin pressed Dang further, and asked for an example of furtive movements suggesting criminal possession of a weapon, to which Dang elaborated, “movements toward certain areas of the body -- usually the waistband or pants pocket,” appearing to place “something on the ground,” “standing near benches or trash cans,” quickly standing up or sitting back down, and nervous behavior.

Despite Dang’s ability to articulate the law, attorneys for the plaintiffs say he struggled to come up with the articulable reasonable suspicion necessary for a stop. His paperwork, they say, suggests so as well. Dang not only uncovered zero weapons, he also made only six arrests (meaning less than 5% of stops led to arrest) and one summons.

“He’s basically wrong 95% of the time, and nobody seemed to care about that,” said Corey, an attorney with the law firm Covington and Burling. When it comes to his descriptions of furtive movements, Corey said, “What it shows is he thinks the documentation of stops is just a formality, and he doesn’t take them seriously.”

“It’s not a big deal to them,” he added, “and they don’t realize this intrusion is a big deal to people they stop.” Nonetheless, “We’ve had witnesses testify that they felt humiliated.”

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