A teenager trying to get into his apartment after school is confronted by police. A man leaving his workplace chooses a different route back home to avoid officers who roam a particular street.
These and hundreds of thousands of other Americans in big cities have been stopped on the street by police using a law-enforcement practice called stop-and-frisk that alarms civil libertarians.
Police in major U.S. cities stop and question more than a million people each year — a sharply higher number than just a few years ago. Many are frisked, and nearly all are innocent of any crime, according to figures gathered by The Associated Press.
And the numbers are rising at the same time crime rates are dropping.
Ronnie Carr’s experience was typical: He was fumbling with his apartment door after school in Brooklyn when plainclothes officers flashed their badges.
“What are you doing here?” one asked, as they rifled through his backpack and then his pockets. The teenager stood there, quiet and nervous, and waited.
Carr said the officers told him they stopped him because he looked suspicious peeking in the windows. He explained that he had lost his keys. Twenty minutes later, the officers left. Carr was not arrested or cited with any offense.
“I felt bad, like I did something wrong,” he said.
Civil liberties groups say the practice fails to deter crime. Police departments maintain it is a necessary tool that turns up illegal weapons and drugs and prevents more serious crime.
The New York Police Department is among the most vocal defenders of the practice. Commissioner Raymond Kelly said recently that officers may stop as many as 600,000 people this year. About 10 percent are arrested.
The practice is perfectly legal. A 1968 Supreme Court decision established the benchmark of “reasonable suspicion” — a standard that is lower than the “probable cause” needed to justify an arrest.
Last year, New York police stopped 531,159 people, more than five times the number in 2002. Fifty-one percent of those stopped were black, 32 percent Hispanic and 11 percent white.
Not all stops are the same. Some people are just stopped and questioned. Others have their bag or backpack searched. And sometimes police conduct a full pat-down.
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on street stops, said few searches yield weapons or drugs. And the more people are searched, the more innocent people are hassled.
“The hit rate goes down because you’re being less selective about how you’re doing this. That has a cost. It’s not free,” Harris said.
In Los Angeles, where Bratton recently stepped down as police commissioner, pedestrian stops have doubled in the past six years to 244,038 in 2008. The number of people stopped in cars is higher.
About 15 percent of the stops resulted in arrests in 2002, compared with about 30 percent in 2008, according to an analysis of the data by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Chicago police refused to release numbers to the AP. Boston police say they do not keep the records. The New Orleans department is not required to keep statistics on pedestrian stops.
Civil liberties groups complain because New York police keep a database of everyone stopped — innocent or not. That makes them targets for future investigations, said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Los Angeles was forced by federal mandate to release data on street stops — including the race of those stopped — starting in 2000 after a series of scandals. The city government promised to adopt scores of reform measures under federal court supervision.
The LAPD was released from the federal decree in July, but a report last year by the ACLU in Southern California showed that blacks were still nearly three times more likely to be stopped by police than whites.
Some people who are stopped file lawsuits against the city and speak out publicly. Most just accept it.
In Harlem, George Lucas changed his route home from work to avoid a stretch of Seventh Avenue, because he kept being stopped by the police.
It’s so common in some areas that community groups have begun offering classes on how to behave when stopped.