by Billy Wharton
New statistics issued by the New York Police Department (NYPD) place the city at the top of the list of civil rights violators in the U.S. The department’s controversial policy of “Stop and Frisk,” or UF-250, produced more than 600,000 police stops in 2010. Police claim this policy has resulted in a drop in crime, while civil rights advocates see it as a tool for racial profiling that unfairly targets black and Latino youth.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) has been a consistent critic of Stop and Frisk. They cite the fact that Latinos and blacks make up more than 87 percent of those stopped as evidence of the racial bias being enforced by the NYPD. Only 8 to 10 percent of the stops were whites despite the fact that whites make up 44 percent of the city’s population.
In July 2010, The New York Times completed a comprehensive study of Stop and Frisk that demonstrated that the NYPD is intensely targeting 10 neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The most policed neighborhood is Brownsville, Brooklyn, which although accounting for only 1 percent of the city’s population, has been subjected to more than 5 percent of all Stop and Frisks reported by the NYPD, an increase of 2 percent since the program was initiated in 2005.
There are other indications that a racial mindset is built into the policy. The Times reported that 44 percent of the time, the NYPD recorded a “furtive movement,” a catch-all phrase describing any movement the police find threatening, as the reason for the stop. Officers were allowed to select multiple reasons for the stop, yet most were highly subjective and unrelated to actual criminal activity. “Appears to be ‘casing’” (28%) and “Other” (20%) were the next two highest, with “Apparent drug deal” (9.9%) and “Violent crime indication” (7.4%) lagging far behind.
Rights groups point to these patterns of activity by the NYPD as evidence that Stop and Frisk violates the Fourth Amendment, the right to probable cause. Probable cause requires that officers of the law hold some “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity” before conducting a stop or search of someone’s property or person. Most often this requires the issuance of a warrant by a court, which would put the officials’ suspicion up to the test of the legal system. “Furtive movement” seems to stray very far from this standard and suggests skin color as the litmus test for criminal intention.
The Stop and Frisk program also has one clear target – not black and Latino residents in general, but back and Latino youth in particular. The Times reported that 15- to 25-year-olds acoounted for the vast majority of people stopped by the police. Documentary video evidence of this collected by an underground filmmaker known only as NYC Resistance showed squadrons of police sweeping through South Bronx neighborhoods stopping every black or Latino youth in their path. This was, apparently, the daily assignment given to these officers. Since only 2.3 percent of the overall searches produce arrest or contraband seizure, the videos recorded scenes of fruitless harassment being carried out by the NYPD.
The Stop and Frisk numbers should be read in tandem with recent figures released by the Community Service Society that report that only one in four young black males in New York City are currently employed. This report cites the overall lack of jobs, the absence of targeted job training programs and serious deficiencies in the city’s GED programs as the cause. Not surprisingly, the neighborhoods targeted by Stop and Frisk were also also among those subjected to the recent spate of school closings. Instead of creating a serious jobs program, fixing the public school system through rebuilding the public sector or strengthening other avenues to productive or even satisfying lives, the city has consciously chosen to unleash a wave of criminalization on black and Latino youth.
The CCR has initiated a class action lawsuit, Floyd v. City of New York, against Stop and Frisk that claims the policy is unconstitutional. Floyd v. City of New York also argues that continuity exists between the NYPD’s disbanded and quite infamous Street Crimes Unit and current departmental policies. The Street Crimes Unit was a group of undercover police officers empowered to conduct random stops in high-crime neighborhoods. Their activities led to the 1999 shooting death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo, when officers in the unit mistook Diallo’s wallet for a gun and fired on him 41 times. A subsequent CCR lawsuit, Daniels v. City of New York, forced the NYPD to maintain a written anti-racial profiling policy and to audit all Stop and Frisks. The unit was ultimately disbanded in 2002.
Racial injustice is about more than numbers. It is about creating a divided city. A city where one group – young people of color — is being stripped of their constitutional rights after being denied the ability to develop themselves. Stop and Frisk is just one very public, very ugly part of this larger process of discrimination. Ending it will not end discrimination or put much of a dent in the pipeline to jail. However, challenging one part of the injustice may lead people to question other features of such systemic injustice. There is only one city and everyone residing in it must be afforded equal access to the means for self-improvement, to the ability to live meaningful, productive and possibly even happy lives. This is a principle we should fight for. One city, not two.
Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and the editor of the Socialist WebZine. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at email@example.com.