When I was in the New York City Police Academy (January 1992) I was introduced to a statute in the New York State Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) as part of my law class while we were being trained in arrests that can be made without an arrest warrant.
The lesson was called “Stop, Question, and (possibly) Frisk” or “SQF.”. The actual statute is found in the New York State CPL under 140.50 “Temporary Questioning of Persons in Public Places; search for weapons.”
I have not seen an article or news program that accurately informs readers or viewers about the wording of the statute or the “spirit” of the law.
SQF is commonly portrayed as a tool that cops use to oppress New York City residents who are of African American or Hispanic ancestry. I have been asked how this law works by many people, and have been shocked at their lack of understanding of the statute.
The word “Question” has been dropped by the media, which changes the face value of the statute.
Let me explain how this law works as it was explained to me and tens of thousands of other NYPD members.
There are three “Probative Standards” that a police officer on patrol has to work with when encountering individuals and evaluating their actions. These probative standards are “Mere Suspicion”, “Reasonable Suspicion” and “Probable Cause”
“Mere Suspicion” is basically a gut feeling. We have all had gut feelings about a person or a situation. Sometimes these feelings prove to be founded and other times they are not. When a police officer has “Mere Suspicion,” he or she may then continue to observe and even follow the individual, taking note of their actions.
Depending on their actions while under observation, the police officers probative standard may elevate to “Reasonable Suspicion”, or the officer could lose that gut feeling or find no cause to elevate his probative standard and therefore go on about his duties, no longer observing the individual.
A police officer may NOT stop an individual when his probative standard is at “Mere Suspicion”.
“Reasonable Suspicion” is when an individual's actions cause the police officer to reasonably suspect: “that such person is committing, has committed or is about to commit either (a) a felony or (b) a misdemeanor defined in the penal law” as the statue reads verbatim. Perhaps this individual was observed hiking up a bulge in his waistband that resembles a firearm, or is in immediate flight from an incident or screams for help in the street, or matches a description that was broadcasted over the police officer's portable radio.
“Reasonable Suspicion” does not have to start with “Mere Suspicion;” a police officer may be at the probative standard of “Reasonable Suspicion” or “Probable Cause” immediately upon encountering an individual. A police officer must be able to articulate “Reasonable Suspicion” in order to implement CPL 140.50, or “SQF.”
“Probable Cause” is also called “Reasonable Cause to Believe.” At this level, a police officer may arrest an individual. Examples would be someone actually brandishing a firearm, or an individual with no permission or authority to be in a location who is found in a residence or commercial building when a police officer responds to a burglary call. The police officer may now make a lawful arrest when he or she meets the probative standard of “Probable Cause”.
Let me walk you through an example where “Stop, Question and (possibly) Frisk” would apply. You are the police officer: while on routine patrol, walking your foot post, a man is running in your direction carrying a baseball bat. When he sees you, he stops running and changes his direction of travel so as not to pass you too closely.
He appears to be very nervous. He's looking around. So you walk towards him.
You now have more than a “gut feeling” because he was running, carrying an instrument that, although not illegal, could be used to assault someone. His nervous, shifty and evasive actions have elevated your probative standard to “Reasonable Suspicion.”
You may stop this person so you can begin a dialogue:
“Sir, where are you running from?”
He may say he was trying to catch a subway or bus, or he may tell you tell you in a barrage of expletives that he's not talking to you. If he chooses to talk, you can ask him for his “pedigree” information, the nature of his business in that particular location, where he is coming from and where he is going.
Of course if you are going to be in any kind of close proximity to this person, you would have him put the bat on the ground. If, while in conversation, you observe a bulge in his clothing that you believe to be a weapon or other tool that would pose a threat to your personal safety, you may frisk the bulge ONLY at that time.
A frisk can also be consensual, so it never hurts to ask. If there is no reason to detain this person any longer, in my day we prepared a written form (now the information is stored digitally) called a “UF 250,” on which all of this information is documented. If the person refuses to give you any information, you will still prepare this form with an accurate description of the person and clothing that he or she is wearing as well as location and direction of travel.
The UF 250 is a valuable tool for detectives who perform their investigations after an offense has been committed. One of the first investigative steps the detectives will take is to check the UF 250 log (or, now, the digital database). If the detectives are investigating a robbery with a baseball bat, and they see the UF 250 that you prepared in the aforesaid incident, you will have provided them with a significant lead as to a suspect's description, location at a particular time and direction he or she was traveling.
Of course this example is over simplified, but if I were to cover the plethora of possible scenarios with “SQF” this article would turn into a handbook, and my point would be lost.
I have explained to you how the law works and given you an example of how it could be used. Many of you will see that the way in which this law is written and implemented is very dissimilar to the impressions you have formed from articles you have read and stories you have watched on television.
Facts and truths are sometimes manipulated to evoke feelings in the consumer that get you to “tune in again.” The same thing is happening with the issue of race when it comes to SQF. Please take a look at the diversity of races proudly sporting the NYPD uniform and ponder honestly as to whether or not this is a collective effort by the NYPD to target minorities.
I would like to paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, with the hope that we can all take a step back from the fray and see the bigger picture. Tolle's philosophy is that as long as we make everything into an “Us” and a “Them,” we can never enjoy the awesome oneness of the “Us” that we share as humans.
John Paolucci, a retired NYPD detective sergeant, worked his last eight years in the Forensic Investigations Division, four of them as a Crime Scene Unit supervisor. He was the first to command the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Liaison Unit, and developed a strong alliance between the OCME and NYPD. He also worked as a narcotics undercover and patrol officer in the housing projects of the South Bronx and is currently the president of Forensics 4 Real Inc. He welcomes comments from readers.