Stop and Frisk, NYPD Commando Unit

The New York Times

February 15, 1999, Monday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 1; Column 4; Metropolitan Desk

LENGTH: 1910 words

HEADLINE: Success of Elite Police Unit Exacts a Toll on the Streets



   They are known as the commandos of the New York Police Department, an elite squad of nearly 400 officers who are dispatched into menacing neighborhoods each night to chase down rapists, muggers and dangerous fugitives, and above all, to get illegal guns off the streets.

They make up less than 2 percent of the police force, but they seize 40 percent of all illegal guns confiscated in the city. They proudly proclaim, "We own the night," and they quote Ernest Hemingway to express their devotion to hunting down armed criminals.

With an exceptional blend of accomplishment and bravado, the Police Department's street crimes unit stands as the most striking example of both the success and the risk of the city's aggressive approach to law enforcement since Rudolph W. Giuliani became Mayor five years ago.

And now, a week and a half after four of its members fired 41 shots at an unarmed West African immigrant, the street crimes squad is undergoing the harshest scrutiny of its nearly three decades of existence.

For years, the plainclothes unit held a low profile in the Police Department. But two years ago, Police Commissioner Howard Safir became so impressed by the unit's performance, he mused that he would like to bottle its enthusiasm and force other officers to drink it. Over the objections of the squad's commanders, he nearly tripled its size, from 138 officers to its current staff level of 380.

But the expansion, and the unit's singularly gung-ho approach, have also contributed to the perception -- particularly in minority neighborhoods -- that the Police Department's aggressive tactics pose a threat to the safety and civil liberties of the people it is supposed to protect.

For instance, the unit's officers frisked 18,023 people in 1997 and 27,061 last year. Those numbers alarmed some civil rights advocates because the unit made only 4,899 arrests in 1997 and 4,647 the next year, meaning that nearly 40,000 people were stopped and frisked during the last two years simply because a street crimes officer mistakenly thought they were carrying guns.

And in the Bronx neighborhood where Amadou Diallo died in the hail of police bullets, community leaders say they receive numerous complaints each month from law-abiding people who are stopped and frisked without probable cause. Two-thirds of those incidents involve officers in the street crimes unit, said Francisco Gonzalez, district manager of Community Board No. 9. In fact, he added, several members of the community board have been among those searched illegally.

"We're grateful for a lot of what the police have done to bring down crime, and we realize most officers, like most residents of our community, are honest, hard-working citizens," Mr. Gonzalez said. "But people are being stopped for no reason, thrown against a fence and searched. Their cars are stopped without probable cause. Sometimes there's vulgar language to people who are just minding their business. What some of the officers are doing is just creating an atmosphere of fear."

While reserving judgment on the shooting of Mr. Diallo, the Mayor and the Police Commissioner have voiced strong support for the squad and have said that minority neighborhoods should be grateful for their efforts. Many officers in the unit believe the danger of their assignment and their achievements make them the unsung heroes of the city's stunning decrease in murders and shootings since 1993. Most brush aside any criticism as an inevitable byproduct of the active approach that has made them so effective.

But privately, some commanders say that the accelerated buildup of the street crimes unit in 1997 was a risky move, fiercely opposed by some unit supervisors because they feared it would make it harder to perform the kind of quality control necessary to monitor officers assigned to a volatile job.

Before the 1997 expansion, each volunteer for the unit received intensive screening, and nearly half of all applicants were rejected. Because of the small size of the unit and low turnover, most training was done on the job, with experienced officers acting as mentors for recruits and working alongside them each day.

The former head of the unit, who opposed the buildup, was transferred and later retired. As staffing was increased, the interview process was shortened, police commanders say, and the influx of new recruits made it impossible for every new street crimes officer to be sent out with a more experienced partner.

All four of the officers involved in the shooting of Mr. Diallo joined the unit after the expansion.

"This unit is a bunch of hard-charging cops, guys who have to be kept under heavy supervision," said a retired police commander who once oversaw the street crimes unit, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "You have to screen them carefully, and you have to be careful not to dilute the experience of the unit too much because any unit you triple in a matter of months is going to suffer. You can't interview people that fast, to be sure they're mature enough, and not crazy."

Some street crimes officers also said they felt pressured by the department's emphasis on crime statistics, and that they are forced to adhere to an unwritten quota system that demands that each officer seize at least one gun a month.

"There are guys who are willing to toss anyone who's walking with his hands in his pockets," said an officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We frisk 20, maybe 30 people a day. Are they all by the book? Of course not; it's safer and easier to just toss people. And if it's the 25th of the month and you haven't got your gun yet? Things can get a little desperate."

But at a news conference yesterday, Mr. Giuliani said the unit was under no particular pressure to reduce crime figures. "They are under tremendous pressure from supervisors to keep the city safe, and many of them put that pressure on themselves," the Mayor said. "But that's no different than being in the narcotics unit and being under tremendous pressure to arrest narcotics dealers, or being a homicide detective and being under tremendous pressure to investigate homicides."

He added: "Police work is highly pressured work. It's very intense."

Marilyn Mode, a department spokeswoman, said that despite the criticism the unit has received since the Feb. 4 shooting, street crimes officers have received a low number of complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, just 84 in 1997 and 41 in 1998. That is less than 2 percent of the 4,769 complaints against the Police Department in 1997 and less than 1 percent of the 4,976 complaints in 1998.

Established in 1971, the street crimes unit held little prominence inside the department until Mr. Giuliani took office in 1994. Mr. Giuliani and his first Police Commissioner, William J. Bratton, adopted a "zero tolerance" policy toward minor offenses, in the hope that arrests on low-level offenses might help the police capture serious felons and that increased contact with the public would help the police take more illegal weapons off the street.

The street crimes unit was a natural prong of that strategy because it deployed teams of highly mobile officers who could go where the crime patterns were and prevent some violent incidents by focusing on the search for weapons.

Officers inside the unit said that shortly after Mr. Bratton became Commissioner, they were instructed to become far more aggressive, and many felt liberated. The unit also expanded its use of decoy officers to catch and deter criminals who repeatedly preyed on cabdrivers, tourists, prostitutes and others. In 1997, when a series of rapes in lower Manhattan terrorized residents, the unit responded with undercover patrols and female decoy officers. No arrests were made, but within a week, the attacks stopped.

"These cops are willing to go the extra mile," said Larry Prince, who runs a Greenwich Village anti-crime community group. "They just want to get the bad guys off of the street."

In today's expanded street crimes unit, much of the officers' time is spent in search of guns. Their shifts begin in a muster room on Randalls Island, where officers are apprised of the city's most pressing crime patterns. Then they take to the streets, riding three or four in a car, moving from borough to borough.

Their success, even their lives, depend on the ability to spot and seize a handgun before a suspect can use it. So street crimes officers pride themselves on the ability to read the walk, mannerisms and subtle movements of someone carrying a concealed weapon. In 1996, several officers designed and distributed T-shirts among the unit, emblazoned with a quotation from Hemingway:

"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter."

In the course of hunting armed men each night, street crimes officers make an infinite number of judgment calls, trying to determine whether actions meet the standard of probable cause necessary for a search. Those workaday decisions have caused several inflammatory incidents in recent years.

Two years ago, commanders of the street crimes officers asked all borough commanders to keep lists of all West Indians they arrested, for a database of suspects. When the memo was leaked to the news media, leaders of the West Indian community protested, and Commissioner Safir scuttled the plan.

Last month, two officers from the unit fired eight shots at Russell Jones, a rap artist with Wu-Tang Clan better known as Ol' Dirty Bastard, and accused him of firing at them after they stopped his car in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Mr. Jones was cleared by a grand jury and insists that the officers had been scared by his cellular phone.

Police officials would not release a detailed breakdown of the unit's racial makeup, but minority officers say they compose less than 10 percent of the squad, as opposed to the 30 percent of all officers department-wide who are black or Latino.

One Latino officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was working with a crew in the Bronx two years ago when his partners pulled over a black motorist without probable cause and began searching his car for weapons.

"I'm just standing there, and the driver's looking up at me, because I wasn't white, and his eyes are saying, 'Can't you help me?' " the officer said. "There was nothing I could do. And when they didn't find a gun, and he was allowed to drive off, he just looked at me like, 'Why didn't you stop them?' "

But whatever the officer's racial or ethnic background, working with the unit is considered one of the most dangerous and taxing jobs in the department; four of its officers have died in the line of duty during the last 15 years. All the careful screening of candidates, all the training and supervision, is intended to prepare them for the instant that a mundane encounter turns deadly.

"These officers have the normal stress of policing, plus the additional stress of the unknown, because you're looking for the worst people in the worst neighborhoods during the worst hours," said Robert J. Louden, a former police commander who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Every time they go out they have to worry about acting legally correct, procedurally correct and safely, just so they can make it home in the morning."