Buffalo's Stop and Frisk Problem

by / Jan. 13, 2015 9pm EST

After a November Common Council hearing regarding the Buffalo Police Department’s contract to patrol Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority buildings, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda made clear that he does not believe that police officers use the controversial “stop and frisk” tactic as a “routine course of action.”

Yet in the same breath, Derenda said, “Have officers used the stop and frisk? I’m sure they have.”

At the same meeting, Attorney John Lipsitz delivered a statement on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild. “We have been speaking with BMHA residents who have expressed concern that their children, themselves, and their guests are unfairly stopped, questioned, and arrested for trespass,” Lipsitz said. ”People report being stopped repeatedly and asked to produce identification, questioned because of lack of identification, stopped because of use of the public outdoor spaces around the buildings, and subjected to other troubling encounters with police officers who regularly patrolled the buildings.”

“Stop and frisk” became a hot button issue following a lawsuit filed in New York City in 2013. In a landmark decision, Judge Shira Scheindlin found the New York Police Department’s practices violated New Yorker’s Fourth Amendment rights—specifically, their right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Additionally, Judge Scheindlin found that the NYPD’s practices were racially discriminatory and that they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The clause, which took effect in 1868, provides that no state shall deny any resident “the equal protection of the laws.”

As it turns out, the controversial practice of “stop and frisk” and the damage it does to communities aren’t limited to New York City. Buffalo and BMHA are currently struggling with the frustrating practice. Roughly four years ago, the policing responsibilities at BMHA properties were reassigned from the BMHA to a Housing Unit of the Buffalo Police Department. BMHA pays the City $650,000 a year for extra police protection; 21 officers are assigned to the five housing projects within Buffalo with the highest crime rates such as Kenfield-Langfield, Perry, and Schaeffer Village. 

The agreement governing the transfer to BMHA states that the police captain of the Housing Unit will “initiate and monitor ongoing lines of communication with public housing resident leaders to effectively employ community policing concepts and to address in a timely manner the concerns raised by such leaders.” As Joseph Kelemen of the Western New York Law Center and the Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild has noted, “Despite this provision, precious little has been done to accomplish the goals set forth. In fact, when residents reach out to the housing unit for assistance they are often told to call 911, causing some residents to question the value of having the unit at all.”

Kelemen goes on to say that residents who testified at a meeting with the Police Oversight Committee on November 5, 2014 voiced concerns about the lack of security in BMHA properties. He wrote, “Many residents and their guests have reported that they are repeatedly stopped, questioned, and arrested for trespass. Interactions of this kind erode the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the community and keep victims and witnesses from reporting crimes, thus fueling a downward spiral in police community relations.”

In a statement to the Police Oversight Committee, John Lipsitz of the National Lawyers Guild said, “The constant policing, involving frequent stopping and questioning for innocent behavior, commonly referred to as stop and frisk, has led to community concern, and general distrust of the police on BMHA property.” 

Lipsitz asserts that “[a]n officer may stop and question an individual if he has an articulable reason to believe that the person is trespassing or engaging in some other form of illegal activity,” but notes that many residents of BMHA housing and their visitors—particularly people of color—are being stopped for “merely walking around—or entering or exiting” a BMHA property.

Both Keleman and Lipsitz have called for police to meet with residents of the BMHA properties and engage in a dialogue to figure out how best to increase both security and trust between residents and the BPD. On January 6, residents had a meeting with BPD and voiced concerns ranging from safety fears to dismay over the amount of “stop and frisk” incidents that are occurring. Residents hope, as Keleman stated that the Police Oversight Committee will “work with the residents to develop a security plan that engages police, security guards and resident leaders in developing new ways to reduce crime while building public trust.”

Stopping and detaining, and often arresting Buffalo residents for going about their daily business—often while they are walking to and from their BMHA apartments—arguably violates their Fourth Amendment Right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Terry v. Ohio, a case decided by the Supreme Court in 1968, established that a police officer who reasonably believes that criminal activity is occurring or about to occur is authorized to stop whoever they suspect of participating in the criminal activity and conduct a limited search of the suspect’s outer clothing for weapons. One would be hard-pressed to argue that walking on public grounds would give a police officer reasonable grounds to believe that criminal activity is afoot. 

This method of policing has been lauded by government officials, police officers, and New York City mayors. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been quoted in the New York Times saying, “I said it…and I will say it again: Quality-of-life crimes are something we are not going to back away from.” Bloomberg dedicated a special taskforce to fighting these low-level crimes called the Office of Special Enforcement. 

In a now controversial 1982 article for the Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the “broken window” theory of crime-prevention, which argues that “minor physical and social disorder, if left unattended in a neighborhood, causes serious crime.” The broken window theory focuses on maintaining public order as a means of lowering crime rates. Wilson and Kelling wrote in the article that “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” The broken window theory urges that more police officers dedicated to foot patrol—and utilizing the “stop and frisk” practice—is a necessary component in fighting crime. 

If we were to adhere to the logic behind the broken window theory, the practice of “stop and frisk” makes perfect sense and poses no problem. However, in practice, “stop and frisk” does much more harm than good. Instead of making residents feel more safe, “stop and frisk” creates a feeling of distrust for police officers—those that are supposed to protect and serve citizens begin to represent a constant threat. When residents of a city are unsure when they are going to be stopped, trusting that the police have their best interests in mind becomes hard to believe.