The personal pain wrought by stop and frisk
Jonathan P Hicks | 3/18/2013, 11:40 a.m.
There is a young man whom I have known for the better part of a decade, since he was in his early teenage years. He is a little shy, although quite talented, artistic and deeply devoted to his spiritual life. We got together recently and he shared a moment that had left him deeply shaken and angry.
He had been visiting friends in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, standing near the entrance of an apartment building. Two New York City police officers approached him. Without uttering as much as a word of introduction, one of the officers grabbed him and began rifling through the young man's pockets.
My young friend then recalled how he had asked the officer why he was being stopped. The officer, he said, dismissively asked him to shut up while slamming him against a wall, frisking him even more thoroughly. In the end, the police found nothing more than a wallet and some insignificant receipts. But it left my young friend bitter and angry to the point where this gentleman--who had been steeped in church etiquette all his life--hurled a pointed obscenity at the police officer. That resulted in the young man being arrested for his language and being detained in a New York City jail cell overnight before being released.
Why, he asked me two days after his release, had this happened to him? He seemed genuinely stunned that he had been stopped, let alone arrested, for doing nothing more than standing in front of a Brooklyn apartment building. Of what infraction was he guilty? "I didn't do anything, and they treated me like I was a criminal."
I was overcome with not just sympathy, but more intensely, by a searing sense of anger and resentment. I had read and written extensively on the subject, but the experience of this young man sitting before me with a palpable sense of indignation, embarrassment and hurt made the phenomenon known as stop-and-frisk at once real and repulsive.
This policy, I explained to him, is what the administration of policing under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has wrought. I explained to him how his experience was far from unique, that hundreds of thousands of young men--most of them Black, like him, and Latino--are routinely stopped, frisked and humiliated every year as though they were escaped convicts carrying firearms or cocaine. Instead, all these Black and Brown young people have done to earn this horrendous treatment is simply exist. Stunningly, it is a practice that the Bloomberg administration continues to defend as central to maintaining law and order in America's largest city.
"New York is by far the safest big city in America," New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said this week, while facing an avalanche of questions at a City Council hearing,"What we are doing here are tactics and strategies that are working," he said, referring to the historically low numbers of murders in 2012. Alas, this is not a policy that is going right.
I was sitting with a young man who had his trust destroyed by a police force hired to protect him. Like more than 85 percent of stop-and-frisk incidents, detaining him led to nothing in preventing any crime. Stopping him did nothing whatsoever to remove illegal guns from the streets. It had no effect on the sale or exchange of drugs in Brooklyn. There was no reasonable basis for suspicion that he was about to commit a penal code violation. He was simply young and Black. And in the world of Bloomberg policing, that's all it takes to subject people to unspeakable mortification.
Civil rights groups have been complaining for years about this practice. So have conscientious elected officials. Even judges are now starting to turn the corner, understanding with greater frequency that this is a practice whose standards are truly arbitrary and capricious.
It's time for all of those candidates who will crisscross the city in this mayoral election year to state clearly their position on this hideous practice. In the meantime, one can only hope that the incumbent mayor and his surrogates will finally get the message that stop-and-frisk is nothing more than sanctioned racial profiling that undermines the very relationship between police and citizens that all New Yorkers should enjoy.