For Women in Street Stops, Deeper Humiliation

By Wendy Ruderman

Shari Archibald’s black handbag sat at her feet on the sidewalk in front of her Bronx home on a recent summer night. The two male officers crouched over her leather bag and rooted around inside, elbow-deep. One officer fished out a tampon and then a sanitary napkin, crinkling the waxy orange wrapper between his fingers in search of drugs. Next he pulled out a tray of foil-covered pills, Ms. Archibald recalled.

What’s this?” the officer said, examining the pill packaging stamped “drospirenone/ethinylestradiol.”

“Birth control,” Ms. Archibald remembered saying.

She took a breath and exhaled deeply, hoping the whoosh of air would cool her temper and contain her humiliation as the officers proceeded to pat her down.

The laws governing street stops are blind to gender. Male officers are permitted to frisk a woman if they reasonably suspect that she may be armed with a dangerous weapon that could be used to harm them. A frisk can escalate into a field search if officers feel a suspicious bulge while patting down the woman’s outer layer of clothing or the outline of her purse.

Last year, New York City police officers stopped 46,784 women, frisking nearly 16,000. Guns were found in 59 cases, according to an analysis of police statistics by The New York Times.

While the number of women stopped by officers in 2011 represented 6.9 percent of all police stops, the rate of guns found on both men and women was equally low, 0.12 percent and 0.13 percent, respectively. Civil rights leaders have argued that the low gun-recovery rates are a strong indication that the bulk of stop-and-frisk encounters are legally unjustified. (The number of police stops has dropped by more than 34 percent in recent months.)

When officers conduct stops upon shaky or baseless legal foundations, people of both sexes often say they felt violated. Yet stops of women by male officers can often involve an additional element of embarrassment and perhaps sexual intimidation, according to women who provided their accounts of being stopped by the police. And many incorrectly believe that the police, like Transportation Security Administration officers, are required to have female officers frisk women.

When conducting a frisk, police officers in New York are trained in the Patrol Guide to slide their hands over the external clothing, focusing on “the waistband, armpit, collar and groin areas.” Officers are taught that perpetrators have been known to tape knives or guns to the base of their necks or place weapons inside their underwear.

The training does not draw a distinction between male and female suspects, Police Inspector Kim Y. Royster said.

“Yes, it’s intrusive, but wherever a weapon can be concealed is where the officer is going to search,” Inspector Royster said. That search is not random; it is based on information provided to an officer, like a detailed description of an armed suspect, or actions that raise an officer’s reasonable suspicion that the woman may be armed, she added.

And although the police stops of women yielded very few guns, they did produce 3,993 arrests last year.

“Safety has no gender,” Inspector Royster said. “When you are talking about the safety of an officer, the first thing he or she is going to do is mitigate that threat.”

A search can extend to a woman’s purse, the inspector added, because it is considered a “lungeable area,” or a place where a person can easily conceal a weapon that can quickly be grabbed.

Ashanti Galloway, 24, a security guard and day care worker, said she recoiled when an officer recently fumbled through her bag and pulled out a pair of pink Victoria’s Secret underwear and her bra.

“He had my clothes in his hand; it was my panties and my bra,” Ms. Galloway said. “I was upset. I felt violated. Powerless.”

Ms. Galloway, who provided her full name and address but asked The Times to use Ashanti, her middle name, for this article, said she was not frisked on that occasion, though once, last summer, a male officer patted her down.

“A male officer should not have a right to touch me in any sort of manner, even if it’s on the outside of my clothing,” Ms. Galloway said. “We’re girls. They are men. And they are cops. It feels like a way for them to exert power over you.”

(To read full article, visit this New York Times link)

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