The How Many Stops Act is presented by proponents as a way to gather concrete data on the daily interactions between police and communities. Photo: Matthias Kinsella via Unsplash

With the nod from Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, a City Council bill intended to document how often NYPD officers stop and question New Yorkers in so-called low-level stops seems close to passage, after being stuck in limbo since its introduction by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams last year.

The How Many Stops Act is presented by proponents as a way to gather concrete data on the daily interactions between police and communities- something that is now essentially missing. Obviously, the cops are required to count things like arrests, but the more mundane, run-of-the mill stops mostly go unrecorded. As the measure moves forward, so does the backlash, with the usual playbook of the Police Benevolent Association — the union for patrol cops — all but threatening to stop doing their jobs if they get additional requirements.

The fundamental disagreement over whether this effort is positive or negative seems to boil down to whether you think cops should be incentivized or disincentivized to question a lot of people, which distills further to the observer’s perspective on what this police questioning does and what it’s meant to achieve.

In this way, it’s something like a public safety Rorschach test. If you are of the opinion that the point of frequent questioning that isn’t a formal stop or arrest is to proactively prevent crime — allowing police officers to essentially stay on top of what’s going on around them and suss out situations of concern — then throwing up barriers and more paperwork seems pointless and counterproductive. Why stop officers from engaging with the community by making these engagements more complex and cumbersome?

Conversely, if you are of the opinion that this type of questioning has little public safety value, is a prime escalator of what would otherwise be a non-issue, and serves more as a way for the police to assert their authority and make clear who is under persistent monitoring and who is not, then forcing the cops to actually tally these interactions seems like a good idea. In this view, the NYPD is concerned mainly that this mandate would reveal a troubling reality: that officers busy themselves stopping and harassing young men of color primarily, without much real benefit and without due scrutiny.

I’d venture to say that there’s something of an inverse correlation between how much you, personally, are subject to this type of questioning and how useful you find it, though that’s a bit simplistic. 

Some of the outrage seems to be driven partly by confusion on what the law actually would or wouldn’t do. An outraged New York Post, under the byline of Carl Campanile — blowhard and reliable triggerman for anything the police union might want to support or tarnish — described the requirement as “forms to be filled out for something as simple as giving a tourist directions,” but it seems pretty clear this is a wild exaggeration.

The bill itself lays out the definition of the “investigative encounters” that would have to be reported as “an interaction between a member of the department and a member of the public for a law enforcement or investigative purpose.” Unless that tourist is asking for directions to the nearest underground dog-fighting ring or where to buy cocaine, it seems obvious that this type of interaction would not fit the criteria.

The better read is it’s targeted towards the types of quizzical not-quite-aggressive stops you might notice (or not notice) every day: cops asking a group of young men for ID, or asking a young woman walking down the street alone where she’s going. The police will maintain that cops’ experience and training will allow them to identify when something is off, and intervene in a way that starts off friendly and only becomes antagonistic when merited. Advocates will argue the opposite happens, with cops relying on unreliable gut feelings that have more to do with racial or class stereotypes, and that for many of those stopped, the interaction is never friendly.

Even from that latter perspective, though, there are definite risks to deterring cops from approaching people on the street. Perhaps instead of what they view as more casual and informal interactions, officers will take a harder line off the bat, since they’re having to file paperwork about it anyway. Some critics on the fiscal side of things fret that adding responsibilities will add to already ballooning overtime costs, with cops stuck filling out forms on the clock. Given how often I see officers standing in groups on subway platforms playing candy crush or whatever, I’m a little doubtful on this point, but it’s an issue worth raising nonetheless.

Which brings us to a more practical question. What exactly does this tally entail? The bill notes that there should be precinct-level reporting (and thus, necessarily, individual officer reporting) of these points: “the apparent race/ethnicity, gender, and age of the member of the public involved; the factors leading to the investigative encounter; whether a criminal or civil summons was issued in connection with the encounter; whether a use of force incident as defined in section 14-158 occurred in connection with the encounter.”

Some of these seem straightforward enough; if a summons is issued or force used, there’s going to be paperwork anyway, and recording the race, age, and gender of the person at issue should take ten seconds. The aforementioned factors, though, are a bit tougher. It’s safe to assume “gut feeling” won’t be acceptable, and probably neither will some of the circumstances that might generate such a feeling. Will this entail a detailed reconstruction of the scene, or will a two-word answer like “erratic behavior” suffice? What if an officer passes through an outdoor barbecue or a march and talks to several people in quick succession, can they file one report or do they have to file a separate form for each encounter?

These types of outstanding process factors will make a significant difference in the way that this plays out in practice if and when it’s actually passed, which seems likely to happen in the waning weeks of the year. I, for one, am eager to see the eventual data.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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