Mayor Adams’ controversial NYPD ‘stop-and-frisk’ teams make high percentage of unlawful stops, target mainly Black and Hispanic men, federal monitor says

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NEW YORK — Mayor Adams’ NYPD Neighborhood Safety Teams tasked with keeping illegal guns off the streets carry out a high number of unlawful stops that largely target Black and Latino New Yorkers, according to a damning federal monitor’s report filed Monday in the landmark NYPD stop-and-frisk case.

The court-appointed watchdog overseeing the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics in years-old litigation, Mylan Denerstein, examined the constitutionality of stops, frisks and searches performed by covert “anti-crime” teams disbanded by Mayor Bill de Blasio and resurrected by Adams last year when he took office. The report found 24% of stops were unconstitutional.

Citing the results as “disappointing,” the federal monitor found the units, who wear modified uniforms similar to security guards and ride in unmarked cars, to be the least compliant of all officers on patrol, and department oversight to be “inadequate at all levels.

“Too many people are stopped, frisked, and searched unlawfully. At the precinct level, sergeants, lieutenants and commanding officers fail to identify and correct the unconstitutional policing,” Denerstein wrote in the Manhattan federal court filing.

“(W)ithout accountability in the field and at all levels within the Department, the level of compliance will not improve.”

Patrol officers not in the units conducted more lawful stops than their “anti-crime” counterparts in eight selected commands, the monitor found, describing that as “notable” given the level of training the neighborhood-based teams undergo.

“Experienced, specially trained and closely supervised officers in (Neighborhood Safety Teams) should have performed at least as well as other members of their commands,” Denerstein wrote. “The results here suggest the exact opposite.”

Adams’ first major policy announcement was to bring back an iteration of undercover cops like the NYPD’s disbanded anti-crime unit. The plainclothes cops were involved in some of the city’s most notorious police killings, including the 2014 chokehold death of Staten Island man Eric Garner.

The mayor pledged to ensure guardrails protecting against “mistakes of the past,” like requiring the teams to undergo training on constitutional policing, dress in a modified uniform and wear body cameras.

The mayor said the “job to do the oversight” would be done by the federal monitor who issued Monday’s report, who would “make sure we are doing it correctly.”

Adams spokesman Fabien Levy on Monday said the mayor has “serious concerns with the methodology” used by the monitor to produce the latest findings. He did not elaborate on those concerns or explain why the mayor’s previous trust in the monitor had eroded. The report notes that the NYPD agreed with most of the monitor’s assessment, citing a breakdown of findings the department accepted and contested.

Levy said shooting rates have fallen by double digits since the implementation of Neighborhood Safety Teams. He cited the specialized officers’ “enhanced training and oversight,” declining to acknowledge the report’s contrary findings about compliance rates.

“Of course, any unconstitutional stop is unacceptable and we will strive to do better for New Yorkers every day. As Mayor Adams always says, the prerequisites to prosperity are public safety and justice,” Levy said.

An NYPD spokesperson said the department is still reviewing the report’s conclusions.

“However, the Department disagrees with the conclusions of the Monitor with respect to some of the encounters the team reviewed,” the spokesperson said, adding that the teams “engage with the public lawfully and constitutionally, and since the implementation of the program, they have been instrumental in the reduction of shootings and homicides that the City is experiencing.

“The NYPD takes accountability seriously and has established multiple layers of oversight.”

While the number of reported stops has fallen sharply since the nine-year-old litigation was brought, the watchdog said racial disparities are as stark as ever. Of 419 encounters observed on body-worn cameras of people being stopped by police in 34 commands, 97% were Black or Hispanic; 92% were male.

Neighborhood Safety cops involved in self-initiated encounters had reasonable suspicion to stop people 69% of the time — meaning they stopped three out of every 10 people unlawfully. They had a legal basis for only 63% of searches. Out of 230 car searches, the teams recovered two weapons.

The monitor’s snapshot, captured from April 1 to October 30 last year, followed 205 Neighborhood Safety members including lieutenants, sergeants, and police officers.

It found the rate of unlawful stops by the semi-undercover teams was 9% higher than the department-wide compliance rate in 2020. They often stopped people without reasonable suspicion based on anonymous tips lacking corroboration, observations of “a bulge” without further description, or “because the person looked back at the officers.”

On June 16, one of the teams stopped an Uber in the 81st Precinct because a passenger wasn’t wearing a seat belt. They removed the passenger from the vehicle when he “leaned to his right and dipped his shoulder.”

“Being in the back of a car and leaning in a certain direction are not indications that a person is armed and dangerous or that there is contraband in the vehicle,” the watchdog wrote, noting body cam footage did not show what the officer described.

“The passenger, who was on the phone with his mother, explained he was going home after being at (a) party. The sergeant searched the back seat of the car where the young Black man had been sitting. Nothing was recovered.”

The report found the team in the 41st Precinct, which serves Hunts Point and Longwood in the Bronx, to be the worst offender: Only 41% of stops, 32% of frisks, and 26% of searches were lawful.

“Equally troubling,” the watchdog found, was that sergeants and lieutenants at the 41st Precinct “noted no deficiencies with respect to stops or frisks and only one deficiency with respect to a search.”

The report cited high compliance in some commands and “extremely low” in others. The Bronx’s 46th Precinct and 52nd Precinct and PSA2 and PSA3 in Brooklyn had 100% compliance in stops, frisks, and searches.

“These commands are among the busiest in the City and show that policing can be done constitutionally and documented accordingly,” reads the report.

The report notes that the NYPD has a different way of assessing the legality of stops. If a frisk is fruitful, the police department counts it as proper, even if the stop was unlawful. Of the 86% of searches precinct executives said were lawful, the monitor only found 46% to be so.

The federal monitor asked the NYPD to submit a plan on how to remedy its practices by next month.

The monitor, which conducted the report with former NYPD members, said some excuses the department gave for improper stops were “extremely troubling,” including wrongly suggesting court cases backed some of their positions.

It cited two Neighborhood Safety Team searches the department deemed proper because a confidential informant tipped off officers. When the NYPD could not provide supporting details, it “changed its position,” saying there was no informant “but insisted the stops were still proper.”

“The defense of unlawful stops, frisks, and searches is troubling,” the watchdog wrote. “We recommend the Department focus its efforts on correcting improper behavior rather than justifying it.”

Chris Sommerfeldt and Rocco Parascandola contributed to this story.