The landmark, riveting stop-and-frisk trial is now over, with closing arguments having been delivered this past week. And if the lengthy trial has made nothing else clear, it displayed with amazing clarity that New Yorkers live in vastly different worlds.
On one hand, there is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and a host of police officials, some of whom testified during the trial. They contend that the initiative of detaining hundreds of thousands of young African-American and Latino New Yorkers each year is a benevolent one that helps the city to be a safer place and that the practice is not based on any discriminatory pattern.
In an amazing declaration, the police commissioner said that African-American New Yorkers are actually stopped by police in far fewer numbers than is reasonable, given the pattern of who commits crime in New York. Under that reasoning, Kelly said, Black men were in fact “under-stopped” by police each year.
Then there is the other world of New York City, as represented by the plaintiffs in Floyd v. City of New York. This is a world where there is the widespread belief that the police illegally detain Black and Brown New Yorkers on the street simply because of their race rather than anything they have done that could be considered suspicious. That view was presented in heartbreaking detail during the trial by Nicholas Peart, a 25-year-old African-American man who has been stopped and frisked twice. Peart began caring for his three siblings after their mother died of cancer two years ago. He said that being stopped by the police was a humiliation that made him feel “degraded” and “criminalized” for doing nothing other than being in his neighborhood.
But by the time the closing arguments ended on Monday, it had become clear that there were some major flaws in the position taken by the Police Department. The problem is that the police say they stop people when there is reasonable suspicion that there has been some potential lawless behavior. However, in nearly 90 percent of those stops, there is no sign of illegally activity. So, what is the basis of the stops, if not race?
That point was raised forcefully by Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the United States District Court in Manhattan. “A lot of people are being frisked or searched on suspicion of having a gun and nobody has a gun,” she said. “So the point is, the suspicion turns out to be wrong in most of the cases.”
Wrong indeed. And it speaks directly to the point made dramatically by the 10 men of color and one woman who testified about being stopped during the trial. For them, the police policy of stop-and-frisk is nothing more than a pattern of detaining and humiliating young African-American and Latino men and women simply because of their race. In nearly all cases, these young New Yorkers have done nothing more sinister than walk home from school, stand in front of an apartment building, head to athletic or church events or simply be en route to a corner store.
Sheindlin, who is hearing the case without a jury, commented on what remains a central problem with the argument of the mayor and the police. She spoke of the “high error rate” that has been the dreadful hallmark of stop-and-frisk and added, in addressing an attorney for the city, “You reasonably suspect something and you’re wrong 90 percent of the time.”
It is likely to be months before the judge renders a decision, but in the meantime, the trial has placed in the public eye the anguish of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are victimized by this horrendous policy. In the process, the experiences and perspectives of many within one world of New York City have at long last had their day in court.