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Expert: NYPD uses phrases to justify frisks

People walk by a Times Square police precinct

People walk by a Times Square police precinct in Manhattan. (July 10, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

A Columbia University criminology expert testified Wednesday that New York City police officers appear to use phrases like "furtive movements" and "high crime area" in what he called a "scripted" effort to justify street stops that may have no legal basis.

Jeffrey Fagan, appearing in a federal court challenge to NYPD stop-and-frisk tactics, said his review of forms filled out after 4.4 million stops revealed the "high crime" claim was often used in low-crime areas and alleged that "furtive movements" seldom produced discovery of contraband or criminality.

"It suggests there's a kind of patterned response," said Fagan, who studied stops from 2004 to 2012 for the plaintiffs. "It's a lot easier to fall back on a script . . . In this case it seems to be a script of suspicion that is increasingly invoked over time."

The class-action case before Manhattan U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin alleges that the NYPD conducts stop and frisks without the "reasonable suspicion" required by the Supreme Court, and disproportionately targets minorities. The plaintiffs want the judge to name a monitor and rein in the use of stops, but the city says they are an important tool.

Fagan's findings, based on two major reviews of the UF-250 forms cops fill out after every street stop, are a centerpiece of the case. He has found that only 12 percent of those approached are arrested or summonsed, only .15 percent of stops uncover a gun, and blacks and Latinos are targeted 80 percent of the time.

"Furtive movement" and "high crime area" -- regularly cited by cops to justify the "reasonable suspicion" standard in court, but viewed cynically by defense lawyers -- are the two factors cited most often on forms, Fagan testified. He said furtive, or secretive, movements were cited in more than 50 percent of all stops, and 71 percent of stops based on suspicion of a weapon.

But he said claims of a furtive movement led to an arrest only 5.1 percent of the time -- a rate 18 percent lower than the 6 percent arrest rate when furtive movement was not checked. He testified there was almost no correlation between the "high-crime" claim -- the second most frequent factor -- and crime rates.

"In the safest places in the city, officers will check 'high crime' at the same rate as in the most dangerous sections of the city," Fagan testified.

Scheindlin, whose pretrial rulings signaled skepticism about the NYPD's approach, seemed impressed by the testimony. "To put it another way," she said to Fagan, "it's used indiscriminately."

Fagan is expected to face cross-examination from city lawyers when he returns to the stand Thursday.

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