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Retired NYPD Chief Joseph Esposito defends stop-and-frisks

Chief of Department Joseph Esposito joins NYPD officers

Chief of Department Joseph Esposito joins NYPD officers and city officials on his penultimate day at the New York Police Department. (March 26, 2013) Photo Credit: Nancy Borowick

The NYPD's recently retired top uniformed commander denied racial profiling in an appearance Tuesday at a federal trial challenging the department's stop-and-frisk tactics and fiercely defended his role in guiding a rapid escalation in street stops since 2002.

"Yes," former Chief of Department Joseph Esposito responded when asked whether a sevenfold increase in stops to 685,000 occurred during his tenure.

"As is the 40 percent decrease in crime during my time, he continued. "Eighty percent over 20 years."

The plaintiffs in the trial before U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan contend that stop-and-frisks disproportionately target minorities and are conducted without the legally required "reasonable suspicion," producing arrests or summonses only 12 percent of the time.

But Esposito -- a blunt, 44-year NYPD veteran who served as the top-ranking uniformed chief from 2000 until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 63 on March 27 -- said that street stops frequently play a role in stopping crime even when the cops find no reason to arrest or issue a citation to the person stopped.

Many stops, he said, target the suspicious behavior of a person preparing to commit a crime -- a break-in or a car theft, for example. Even though a street stop doesn't produce enough evidence for an arrest, he said, suspects may decide not to do anything once they realize police have zeroed in.

"Just because there's no enforcement action . . . doesn't mean it's not a legitimate stop," Esposito testified. "What many people fail to understand is, how many crimes are prevented just by stopping a person who has reasonable suspicion."

Esposito ran the NYPD's Compstat sessions, at which lower-level commanders are questioned about strategies for addressing crime spikes in their boroughs and precincts, and was questioned about passages in notes of some sessions where he complained about low numbers of street stops.

"I don't think we are doing enough," he told a commander in one 2008 session. "In that zone you have four C's [quality of life summonses] and five 250s [street stops] in a 28-day period."

The plaintiffs contend that a numbers-first approach effectively imposed a quota system on cops, leading to bad stops.

But Esposito said there were no quotas and that his comments at Compstat were a management tool to make commanders develop and defend their anti-crime strategies and motivate their patrol officers.

"We've got to see the officers give an honest day's work for an honest day's pay," he testified. "In our business, that means crime goes down."

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