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.
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.”
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).