The shameful stop and frisk policy of the New York Police Department (NYPD) cannot be separated from the history of racial oppression and exploitation that this country was built upon and upon which it continues to thrive
The facade of legitimacy, attached to the program by boosters such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, disintegrates quickly once exposed to the department’s own statistical profile of the policy; in addition, the effectiveness of stop and frisk in lowering crime has been doubted by Kelly’s oft-cited friend, famed criminologist Franklin Zimring.
In 2011 the NYPD documented nearly 700,000 stop and frisks, though the actual number is likely far greater, despite the practice leading to few arrests-less than 10 percent-and far fewer firearms arrests-1 percent-the ostensible objective of the entire program.
The arrests that were documented as part of stop and frisk were mostly illegal, as media outlets such as WNYC have reported, the outcome of dubious, yet common, police practices such as unconstitutional searches and even evidence planting. Thus-those caught up in this system can only be defined as victims, not criminals-victims of improper arrest by the NYPD.
Why would Bloomberg and Kelly hitch their cart to a policy that has a 1 percent success rate and operates in direct conflict with human and civil rights when other legitimate programs, such as targeted firearm buybacks, have proven far more effective at getting weapons off the streets? What is it about stop and frisk that is successful enough to warrant its application, despite its widely publicized failures as a crime-fighting tool?
One thing stop and frisk does very well is increase the joblessness, homelessness and disenfranchisement of people of color. While the ratio of stop and frisks to arrest victims procured through the policy are low, due to the sheer volume of people targeted by the practice, as many as 70,000 individuals, possibly more (the NYPD has yet to release its 2011 statistics), will have been swept up in New York City this year into the nation’s system of mass incarceration, where they will join more than 7 million people under some form of prison control.
This system, not surprisingly, is described by its vast disproportionalities with regards to race and class. Incarcerated individuals have widely lost their rights to education, school loans, employment, voting and certain forms of public assistance such as housing subsidies and food stamps.
In theory, the NYPD has been given the authority to stop anyone they want, with or without probable cause that a crime is either being committed or planned, but the department has chosen to assert this authority almost exclusively against people of color, despite national statistics that show little variance between races with regard to criminality.
By focusing arrests almost exclusively in poorer communities of color, the NYPD has demonstrated that individuals arrested for crimes such as drug possession are not targeted because they are likely drug users, but because of the color of their skin.
Throughout this nation, there is no mandate for the aggressive policing of minor drug crimes. If there were, no-knock warrants would be more prevalent in college campuses than they are in the ‘hood-yet, the police have used the pretext of possible drug activity and other so-called quality of life crimes to stop, frisk, harass and arrest tens of thousands of individuals who face even greater repercussions if they dare to assert their human rights not to be treated in this manner.
Is stop and frisk better understood as an intentionally racist program aimed at removing jobs, housing and the voting franchise from people of color?
It is inaccurate to suggest that if a person is doing nothing wrong, that they have nothing to fear. As media reports have described, many of those arrested through stop and frisk were not guilty of any crime and should never have been arrested, yet most will carry the outcomes of that encounter with the police forever.
People of color are routinely arrested for disorderly conduct, obstructing government administration or resisting arrest for protesting stop and frisk when it occurs; they are arrested merely for asserting their constitutional rights to live free from police harassment, humiliation and violence. A policeman can throw a person to the ground without cause, but if that person makes an effort to protect themselves, they face bans from employment, housing, voting and a slew of other so-called civil rights.
The failure of the courts, the Civilian Complaint Review Board and internal NYPD processes to curb inappropriate activities by police officers or inappropriate department-wide policies empowers the police to act with the presumption of absolute impunity and leaves the public with no avenue for recourse. We cannot sell out those facing this persecution by taking the bait offered by the police that they are the only cure to crime, when in fact the NYPD, by all but eliminating the potential of 70,000 people a year to become gainfully employed, to find housing and to vote, is one of the most obvious crime creators in the city.
Despite this legacy, the NYPD has successfully criminalized young people of color, a useful cover-up that has been marinated and refreshed by the media and much of the citizenry.
It is indisputable that practices such as stop and frisk engender in the public a distrust of the NYPD in communities that are overwhelmed by overpolicing. Many people throughout New York would not consider calling the police if they had a problem. These practices contribute in a major way to the fracture of community cohesion, which experts and community members alike would agree is the true antidote to criminal behavior.
Any suggestion that the NYPD has any interest in stopping, not perpetuating, crime in certain neighborhoods must begin with the acknowledgement that the NYPD and its policies are part of this problem.
It is for these reasons and others that a “reform” of stop and frisk rings hollow and disingenuous and reflects a deep-seated racial apathy in the hearts of those who claim to desire this type of change. Any system of policing that includes stop and frisk, a consciously racist policy, shows a tremendous indifference toward the people who have had their human rights violated routinely by the NYPD.
Why would we want to live in a city where the intentional removal from society of certain people, strictly because of the color of their skin, was commonplace? How can we sleep at night knowing that it is? How can we continue to elect leaders who will not even acknowledge that the city has a wide-ranging police problem? We must grasp the urgency that this situation demands.
Today, in certain racially segregated neighborhoods around our city, young people are losing their human rights to participate in their government, to be employed, to find shelter and to otherwise live a life that includes basic freedoms exclusively because of the color of their skin. To demand anything other than the abolition of the stop and frisk policy is to send a deafening message to young people facing this reality every day: “We don’t care about you.”
Never in the history of struggle in this country have the powerful ceded their position willingly. It is incumbent upon those of us who believe everyone is entitled to basic human rights, and that the power of the state should not be used to continue the history of racial oppression in this country, to acknowledge what is happening, to stand up, to organize and to take what we know is right and leave the others with no option but to acquiesce.