Stop-and-frisk in the spotlight
Jonathan P Hicks | 5/23/2013, 3:53 p.m.
There is something highly intriguing and, at once, deeply satisfying about the federal trial now underway in Manhattan concerning the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices. Through the testimonies of plaintiffs who have been detained by police officers and by members of New York's police force, two themes are emerging: (1), stop-and-frisk is rooted in a desire to create fear in young Black and Latino men; and (2), there is little evidence to suggest that detaining them has any measurable impact on reducing crime.
The proceedings in the Manhattan courtroom are satisfying because they make it abundantly clear that the criticisms of stop-and-frisk by activists and elected officials over the years are indeed based in deep truth. It is a program that discriminates, primarily against young men of color, for no justifiable reason.
All of this is unfolding at a federal trial that is pulling back the curtain on the police department's controversial and atrocious initiative of stopping people because of their race. The nonjury trial involved a lawsuit from four men who maintain that the police stop Black and Latino men without cause. The four plaintiffs are seeking to reform the program, which has resulted in more than 5 million New Yorkers being stopped by police in the last 10 years.
The trial produced the brave testimony of Pedro Serrano, a Latino police officer, who made a riveting recording of a conversation with his superior officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack. In the surreptitiously recorded exchange, McCormack urged the subordinate police officer to be more aggressive in stopping young men.
"We go out there and we summons people," the commander said, adding that his formula for curbing violent crime in a particular section of the Bronx was for police officers to detain and, if need be, frisk "the right people at the right time, the right location."
That led to the posing of a highly logical question: Who, indeed, are the right people? The answer from the commanding officer was unequivocal. "The problem was ... male blacks," Inspector McCormack said. "And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this, male blacks 14 to 20, 21."
Civil rights lawyers have long held the position that the term "right people" was nothing less than police code for young African-American and Latino men, who account for nearly 90 percent of those who are stopped and frisked by police.
That recorded voice from a New York City police superior produced extraordinary clarity. It is irrelevant if a young man is simply standing outside of an apartment building after visiting his grandmother. It doesn't matter if he is leaving a rehearsal of his youth choir at a church or simply relaxing on a park bench after school. In police culture in the era of stop-and-frisk, if he is young and Black, that's more than sufficient grounds for stopping him, rummaging through his clothing and subjecting him to unforgettable humiliation.
Police officials have countered this damning testimony, explaining that the phrase "the right people" is nothing more than a casual description of people who make a habit of breaking laws and committing petty crimes. The problem with this theory is that 85 percent of the hundreds of thousands of young men who are stopped each year are guilty of nothing more than simply being Latino and African-American men. It is an ugly blemish on the culture of policing in New York City.
The non-jury trial has produced other sparks and, not surprisingly, stung rebuttals by the police department. But in the end, it will continue to produce more of what it has already yielded: unquestionable evidence that stop-and-frisk is a program that is as appalling as it is unnecessary.