A database envisioned to safeguard the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of people stopped, questioned and frisked by police is being used by the department as a tool to investigate crime, raising privacy concerns.
The latest example emerged Friday, when police said they located four suspects in the beating of a Hispanic man on Staten Island in part because they ran their names through the New York Police Department's automated database — which grew out of a law requiring police to keep details such as age and race on anyone they stop.
The law, enacted in 2001, required the department to turn information over to lawmakers every quarter. It was aimed at uncovering whether the police were disproportionately stopping black and Hispanic men. But police also hold on to addresses and names of people stopped — information not required by the law.
The size of the database is unclear. Every year, police stop more than 600,000 people, mostly young black and Hispanic men. The stops are based on a standard of reasonable suspicion, lower than the standard of probable cause needed to justify an arrest. Only about 6 percent of the people stopped are arrested.
Some people are just stopped and questioned. Others have their bags or backpacks searched. And sometimes police conduct full pat-downs. Generally, when people are stopped, their names and addresses and the circumstances are recorded by police.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says the stop-and-frisk policy has played a major role in the overall reduction of crime in the city. He said the names in the database are kept indefinitely and are used in future investigations. The NYPD spent about $12 million to automate the data.
In the Staten Island incident, Rodulfo Olmedo, 26, was heading toward his apartment Monday morning when men surrounded him and shouted anti-Mexican slurs, authorities said. The men threw him on the ground, beat him with a wooden stick, then stole his cell phone and wallet. Olmedo, a native of Mexico, was hospitalized in stable condition Friday.
Investigators recovered surveillance camera video, and through a tip they located people who recognized some of the suspects, NYPD chief spokesman Paul Browne said. They were given names and partial names, and investigators ran the information through the database, confirming names and turning up details that two of the men had been stopped together for suspicious behavior in the area before. A third also was stopped in the area.
The men were quickly arrested, Browne said.
"This is just one example of thousands of times the database helps detectives investigate crimes," he said.
Rolston Hopson, 27, Tyrone Goodman, 17, and William Marcano, 17, were awaiting arraignment Friday. They were arrested on charges of robbery and assault as hate crimes. There were no phone listings for them at the home addresses provided by police.
Later Friday, the fourth and final suspect was arrested. The 15-year-old boy was arrested on charges including robbery and grand larceny as hate crimes and gang assault, police said. His name was withheld because he is a juvenile.
Lawmakers and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which helped draft the database legislation, say they did not anticipate the police department would use the database, full of people never arrested, as a searchable index of possible crime suspects.
"The prospect of occasionally finding additional information about suspects already known to the police does not come close to justifying a police database of millions of innocent black and Latino New Yorkers," said Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the NYCLU.
Last month, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilman Peter Vallone, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, wrote to the police commissioner insisting names of people not arrested be purged from the system.
"Innocent people should not be criminal suspects, and as such, we urge you to revise your practice of using this information in criminal investigations," they wrote.
Kelly has not yet responded to the letter, but he has said he was considering the points made by Vallone and Quinn.
Another example police point to is a Staten Island hate crime assault last June, when a Nicaraguan man was beaten with a bat by someone who said he was "taking jobs away from Americans."
An anonymous tipster called to report a name: Joseph Sweeney. There are hundreds with that name in the city, and investigators ran the name through the database and came up with a person stopped — but not arrested — who matched the descriptio He eventually was arrested, charged and pleaded guilty and is serving time in the assault, police said.