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.
This story, “In Police Pat-Downs, Many Women See Sexual Overtones,” originally appears at the New York Times News Service.
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.”
Crystal Pope, 22, said she and two female friends were frisked by male officers last year in Harlem Heights. The officers said they were looking for a rapist. It was an early spring evening at about 6:30 p.m. The three women sat talking on a bench near Ms. Pope’s home on 143rd Street when the officers pulled up and asked for identification, she said.
“They tapped around the waistline of my jeans,” Ms. Pope said. “They tapped the back pockets of my jeans, around my buttock. It was kind of disrespectful and degrading. It was uncalled-for. It made no sense. How are you going to stop three females when you are supposedly looking for a male rapist?”
Besides, Ms. Pope said, she thought male officers were required to summon a female colleague when conducting a frisk.
That belief, though incorrect, is shared by many women, said Andrea Ritchie, a civil rights lawyer and co-coordinator of Streetwise and Safe, a nonprofit organization that focuses on police practices that affect young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who are also members of ethnic minorities.
Each year, the organization conducts between 20 and 30 “know-your-rights” workshops at community centers around New York City. Inevitably, questions about gender and policing arise, Ms. Ritchie said.
“Every training we go to, we hear complaints about stop-and-frisk, and we hear women talk about sexual harassment,” Ms. Ritchie said. “They say, ‘Isn’t it right that a male officer can’t frisk you?’ ”
Ms. Ritchie said she believed the confusion spoke to the type of police stops unfolding daily on the streets, especially in cases where officers might have violated constitutional boundaries.
If a woman believes there is no legal basis for the frisk, Ms. Ritchie said, then she may feel that she is being groped simply for the officer’s sexual gratification. “That’s how women have described it to me,” Mrs. Ritchie added.
According to T.S.A. protocol, male security officers are not permitted to frisk passengers of the opposite sex during the airport-screening process. “Males pat down males, and females pat down females: that’s the policy,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the agency.
The agency offers options for passengers who express discomfort with the pat-down process. It allows them to undergo a pat-down in a private room, with a traveling companion as a witness. “You should neither be asked to — nor agree to — lift, remove or raise any articles of clothing to reveal a sensitive area of the body, such as the buttocks, groin or breasts,” T.S.A. policy says. “Bare or exposed skin should not be touched by the security officer.”
But in New York, Inspector Royster said, it is not only unsafe for male officers to wait for a female officer to arrive, but it is also often impractical. As of the end of 2011, more than 80 percent of officers on patrol were men. Of the more than 22,200 ranked officers, roughly 4,200 were women, according to the Police Department.
During training, officers take a course, “The Nobility of Policing,” which teaches them to be sensitive to issues surrounding gender, race and ethnicity, but that training does not specifically address stop-and-frisk for a weapon. It is only after a woman is arrested and brought to a police precinct that a female officer is summoned to conduct a “thorough search,” according to the Patrol Guide.
Ms. Archibald’s interaction with the police occurred shortly after she had left work. The two uniformed officers drove up in a squad car and stopped her as she fished inside her purse for keys to her house on Walton Avenue in Morris Heights, she said.
Ms. Archibald, a 21-year-old hairdresser, said the encounter was made worse by the number of people out on the street that night. “There were a lot of guys from the neighborhood outside,” she said, “and here is this officer squeezing one of my sanitary pads in front of everyone.”
One officer, she recalled, lifted up her long tank top and lightly brushed his hand over the elastic waist of her spandex leggings. They instructed her to pinch the shirt fabric between her breasts and yank at her bra.
“They asked me to snap my bra, to pull and shake it a bit, to see if anything fell out,” Ms. Archibald said.
Nothing did, she said. And they let her go.