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Ending Stop and Frisk

Bob Herbert

Imagine Michael Bloomberg being stopped on the street by police and ordered in contemptuous tones to spread his arms and legs wide and lean over the hood of a car so he could be patted down.

New York City’s billionaire mayor would be outraged, to say the least, and so would his constituents. But such humiliating treatment by the police has been a daily reality for staggering numbers of young black and Latino New Yorkers whose only crime has been waking up each morning in the wrong colored skin.

A federal judge has ruled that this hateful policy of stopping “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white” must end. But the city seems ready to fight to the death to preserve it.

Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, in a powerfully constructed opinion that ran to almost 200 pages, recognized that being accosted and frisked by the police for no good reason is “a demeaning and humiliating” experience. “No one,” she wrote, “should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of his daily life. Those who are routinely subjected to stops are overwhelmingly people of color, and they are justifiably troubled to be singled out when many of them have done nothing to attract the unwarranted attention.”

I am troubled by the appalling number of New Yorkers who still think, along with Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, that this profoundly racist policy is just fine. Stop and frisk, a deeply flawed practice to begin with, spun completely out of control during the Bloomberg years. More than 4.4 million stops were recorded between January 2004 and June 2012. You get a sense of the maniacal scale of the policy when you consider that the city’s population is just a shade over 8 million. Urged on by Bloomberg and Kelly, the police made nearly 700,000 such stops in 2011 alone.

Wherever and whenever the stops occurred, blacks and Latinos were the targets. It didn’t matter whether the police were patrolling in high-crime or low-crime neighborhoods, white neighborhoods or black, prosperous neighborhoods or poor. As Scheindlin noted, members of those two groups were more likely to be stopped after all other “relevant variables” were taken into account.

What Bloomberg and Kelly did, to their everlasting shame, was institutionalize and radically expand the already widespread practice of street encounters between the police and ordinary citizens that are grounded in racial prejudice. It never bothered the mayor or his commissioner that nearly all of the people stopped were black or brown. That was precisely the idea. Bloomberg himself recently said, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.” And it never mattered to Bloomberg or Kelly that nearly all of the people stopped were innocent.

“The NYPD has known for more than a decade that its officers were conducting unjustified stops and frisks and were disproportionately stopping blacks and Hispanics,” Scheindlin wrote:

Despite this notice, the NYPD expanded its use of stop and frisk by seven-fold between 2002 and 2011. The increase was achieved by pressuring commanders at Compstat meetings to increase the numbers of stops. The commanders, in turn, pressured mid-level managers and line officers to increase stop activity by rewarding high-stoppers and denigrating or punishing those with lower numbers of stops.

Paying the price for this malicious public policy perpetrated by the most powerful figures in the city were innocent black and Latino men and women who were walking the streets of their neighborhoods, bothering no one. To pretend that this was somehow an effective crime-fighting strategy is ludicrous. The reason the police have been unable to point to significant numbers of arrests or instances of crime being disrupted by stop and frisk is because the people they were stopping were innocent. As I. Bennett Capers, a Brooklyn Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, wrote in the New York Times, “The success rate for finding a gun borders on the nonexistent: 1 in every 1,000 stops.”

The police have the right to stop someone if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the person targeted is involved in some criminal activity. In New York City the cops are wrong nine out of 10 times. When your suspicions are incorrect 90 percent of the time, they are by definition unreasonable. In the few instances in which arrests were made or summonses issued, the offenses were almost uniformly minor. And I have personally spoken to many, many young people who were arrested on phony charges, which were later either dropped by the district attorney’s office or thrown out by a judge. 

This atrocious failure rate and the department’s deliberate targeting of blacks and Latinos led to Judge Scheindlin’s historic ruling that the Bloomberg-Kelly stop and frisk tactics were unconstitutional and should go the way of legally segregated schools and other hideous practices of the Jim Crow era. “One NYPD official,” the judge wrote:

has even suggested that it is permissible to stop racially defined groups just to instill fear in them that they are subject to being stopped at any time for any reason – in the hope that this fear will deter them from carrying guns in the streets.

Bloomberg, in defiant tones, made clear that the city will appeal Scheindlin’s ruling. He spoke contemptuously of the judge, saying that her reasoning made “no sense whatsoever,” and accused her of deliberately denying the city and the Police Department “a fair trial.”

As welcome as Scheindlin’s decision has been to New Yorkers concerned about fair play, civil treatment and the rule of law, there were two factors beyond the ruling itself that are important for progressive thinkers and activists to consider. The first is the importance of organized and sustained citizen action to any effort to bring about substantial change. There had been protests against stop and frisk for many years, with the feelings of outrage and hostility toward the policy steadily building. That anger grew into a movement when, during a meeting in Manhattan, the many interested groups agreed to work together. As the Times reported:

In a 16th floor conference room in TriBeCa, roughly 40 different groups of researchers, lawyers and community activists gathered in June 2011 to plan a unified political attack on the policing practice to go along with the one being mounted in the federal courts.

The groups coalesced under one name, Community United for Police Reform, fanning out into neighborhoods with heavy police activity and becoming a regular and loud presence at rallies on the steps of City Hall and outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan. The mantra: Change the Police Department.

Bloomberg and Kelly felt the heat, although they would never acknowledge it. Stop and frisk was already being reined in to some degree before Scheindlin’s ruling was handed down.  

The second important point is that all organizations, and especially those responsible for the public’s safety and welfare, need substantial oversight. They cannot police themselves. Scheindlin addressed this. Among other things, she appointed a respected lawyer and former city official, Peter Zimroth, to oversee the Police Department’s compliance with her directives.

The idea that police officers cannot effectively do their job without violating the law and the rights of citizens was always bogus. The NYPD and the citizens groups that fought successfully against the abuses of stop and frisk have an obligation now to work cooperatively in the effort to fight crime while remaining within the boundaries of the law and human decency.