Opinion: Stop-And-Frisk, It’s Time For a Change

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One afternoon, I was standing at a bus stop and I noticed an NYPD car driving slowly. As the officer approached, he slowed down. Bravely, he stared down each individual on the bus line. I caught his stare. He seemed just as suspicious of me as I was of him. I wondered to myself, illogical as it was, could I have done something wrong?

Every day, thousands of teens — mostly black and Latino males — feel that same undeserved suspicion from the NYPD. But for many teens, these encounters are much more than just a look; thousands of young New Yorkers are routinely stopped and frisked by officers each year. The NYPD believes the policy prevents crime, but critics say its consequences far outweigh the benefits.

Legally, an officer is only supposed to stop someone if he has a “reasonable suspicion that the individual has engaged or is about to engage in criminal activity,” according to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a civil liberties group that opposes the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

But what is “reasonable suspicion?” The NYPD has interpreted it broadly. CCR tallied the NYPD’s own records and found that 685,724 people were stopped in 2011 — the vast majority of whom were black and Latino. Nearly nine out of 10 of those subjected to stop-and-frisk were not arrested.

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg credits the policy with lowering crime and keeping guns off the streets, it has a detrimental effect on innocent people who feel targeted because of their race, class, religion, sexual orientation, gender, identity or housing status. Critics say many stops are unlawful because they are too often based on stereotypes rather than real suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing.

Police Brutality

In the 1990s, there were several incidences of police brutality and racial profiling associated with police stops. One notorious example was Amadou Diallo, an innocent man who was killed outside his Bronx apartment by police in 1999 when he reached for his wallet to show the officers his ID.

Diallo was a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Africa. The officers say they believed Diallo was reaching for a gun and that they fired on him in self-defense—41 times. After the officers involved were found not guilty of murdering Diallo, thousands of people rallied against police brutality and profiling.

Following the Diallo shooting, CCR filed a civil rights lawsuit that forced the NYPD to create an anti-racial profiling policy and release data on police stops to CCR, which has now been analyzing those numbers for about 10 years. In 2008, CCR concluded that, based on the data, the NYPD was continuing to conduct racial profiling and unconstitutional stops. They filed a federal class action lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to court March 18.

The numbers show that young people are among those most frequently stopped and frisked. Fifty-five percent of those stopped in 2011 were young people under the age of 25. Young people were stopped an average of once every 90 minutes in high-poverty, majority black and Latino neighborhoods like East New York and Brownsville, Brooklyn, while whiter, wealthier areas averaged one stop every 18 hours.

“Kids are getting stopped on their way to or from school. Why are kids wearing backpacks being stopped?” said Nahal Zamani, a CCR program manager. “One young person told us if you are perceived as not having any status in society, then they can do anything they want to you…a lot of young people are just expecting this to be part of their lives.”

Does Stop-and-Frisk Work?

Proponents argue that, whether or not people like it, stop-and-frisk has reduced crime. Dennis C. Smith, a professor of public policy at New York University who has worked as a paid consultant for the NYPD, believes that the policy is actually beneficial to high-crime communities. Writing in The New York Times last July, Smith pointed out that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately victims and perpetrators of violent crime. Smith claims that stop-and-frisk deters people from committing crimes in the first place and has therefore helped reduce arrests and imprisonments of New York City residents.

It is true that the New York City’s murder rate reached a record low last year. But the data collected by CCR shows that in 2011, only 2.6 percent of stops resulted in police finding a weapon or contraband (illegal substances).

 Critics also say that the consequences of stop-and-frisk outweigh the benefits because it has eroded the public’s trust in the police — especially in neighborhoods where crime is highest. A 2011 encounter between police and a Harlem teen named Alvin reveals why. One day when Alvin was walking home, a cop car pulled up.
Alvin had been stopped several times before. This time, he managed to secretly record the encounter. In the audio recording, the police said he got stopped so frequently because he seemed “suspicious,” explaining that he’d kept looking back at the police as they were nearing him. Alvin explained to the cops that he was looking at them because he had been stopped just two blocks before.
What happened next was stunning. In the recording, the officers used profane language and threatened to slap Alvin, break his arm, punch him in the face, and arrest him.
Alvin was later interviewed for a short documentary about stop-and-frisk by filmmaker Ross Tuttle, in which he said he felt like the cops had been trying to provoke him into a physical confrontation. The film shows what CCR and other organizations say is a policy that pressures cops into harassing innocent people in order to keep their jobs or get promoted.
Two former officers interviewed anonymously in the film said that cops with low numbers of stops, summonses, and arrests may be given poor evaluations or unwanted assignments, such as working in high-crime areas alone.
Some cops are uncomfortable with the practice, but under pressure, said one of the officers, they sometimes resort to making up reasons to stop innocent people. (Remember, the law says that police must have “reasonable suspicion” that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime in order to make a stop.)
“If you’re a certain ethnicity standing on the corner—lieutenants, sergeants, they have no problem searching you, violating your rights, and racial profiling,” said one officer.
Another put it this way: “When I came into this police department, I wanted to help people, but the civilian population, they’re being hunted. Instead of being protected by us, they’re being hunted and we’re being hated.”
It’s no wonder that so many young people don’t trust the police. But is that the way people ought to live in a free society?
More Oversight of Police
Change may be on the horizon. The City Council is considering four bills known as the Community Safety Act, which would require police to identify themselves to each person stopped and explain clearly why they’ve been stopped, as well as their right to refuse the search if there is no warrant or probable cause.
The act would also strengthen the NYPD’s ban on discrimination to include not only race, ethnicity, and religion, but things like sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, and disability. Finally, it would order the city’s Office of the Inspector General to oversee the NYPD. (Unlike most city agencies, the NYPD has no independent oversight to make sure it’s following its own rules and regulations.)
The job of the police should be to protect the public—not harass innocent people. Public pressure seems to be having an impact: In February, CCR announced that the number of stop-and-frisks fell by 221 in 2012.
Since young people are frequent targets of NYPD harassment, I believe that we should speak up about unjust policing practices. We can speak out through the press, through protests, and through letters and phone calls to city legislators. Together, we can defend the rights of all groups that face police harassment.
Photo by YC-Art Department

This story originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by New York City teens. YCteen is published byYouth Communication, a non-profit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.

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