Two uniformed officers looking for a robbery suspect approach a group of New Yorkers hanging out in the sweltering heat on the stoop of a dilapidated Bronx building.
The crowd gets increasingly agitated as the cops pepper them with questions. Over the police radio, a dispatcher gives a description of the suspect. Two men are frisked.
"I did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong," one man says, before he's let go. Another is arrested.
The cops are real. But the scenario is fake, part of a training program at the nation's largest police department aimed at teaching officers the right way to stop someone on the street.
A media demonstration Wednesday came amid a growing wave of criticism of the city's police tactic where officers stop, question and sometimes frisk hundreds of thousands of people every year, mostly black and Hispanic men. A judge allowing a federal class-action lawsuit against the police department said earlier this year that there was evidence of thousands of illegal stops.
In response, police have retooled training, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is meeting monthly with a panel composed of clergy and community leaders to discuss street tactics.
So far, more than 1,200 officers have received the hands-on training at an NYPD facility in the Bronx. The officers are members of a department program that floods rookie cops into higher-crime precincts for at least two years and who, on average, make the most street stops. There are about 300 more to be trained. From there, other officers who average more street stops, like those in the transit and anti-crime bureaus, will be trained. New recruits also receive the training.
The NYPD has about 35,000 officers; the second largest police department is Chicago with about 13,000.
Deputy Chief James Shea, the commanding officer of the police academy, took reporters through three different scenarios where officers may stop, question and frisk someone. The police department's set includes several gray concrete buildings, some with blown-out windows, dank stairwells and little light. The buildings are meant to simulate what it's like to work in real-life city neighborhoods.
Officers take turns doing acting stints as "real people," ad-libbing to help train other officers. Those going through training are all expected to perform a job while instructors and their colleagues watch. Afterward, they discuss what they could do better, and whether they did anything wrong.
"We train our officers the right way to police a free society," said James O'Keefe, NYPD deputy commissioner of training. "We tell our officers, you're going to see these people tomorrow and the next day. So we always stress professionalism and courtesy in our interactions."
In addition to the tactical training, officers are given seminars on how to police with courtesy and the laws that govern the stop, question and frisk policy.
Last year, about 685,000 people were stopped by the police. Of those, half were frisked. And nearly all the encounters were with black or Hispanic men who were not arrested. Few stops turn up any weapons.
Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg have defended the policy as a life-saving, necessary crime-fighting tool that has helped drive crime down to record lows.
But the public outcry over the sheer volume of stops — there were less than 100,000 a decade ago — is growing. Thousands attended a weekend march protesting the tactic. The 2013 mayoral race, the first without Mayor Michael Bloomberg in three terms, has ignited fresh debate with many potential candidates weighing in on the issue.
The community panel that will meet monthly with Kelly includes Bishop Lester Williams, who was the pastor of Sean Bell, the unarmed groom shot to death by police in a hail of 50 bullets after leaving a Queens strip club in 2006.
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Published at 9:26 AM EDT on Jun 21, 2012
Copyright Associated Press / NBC New York