“Stop-and-Frisk”: Not Just a New York State of Mind

By Jennifer Ng’andu, Director of Health and Civil Rights Policy Projects, NCLR

Photo: Michael Fleshman
Photo: Michael Fleshman

NCLR welcomed the news of the federal court decision that found New York City’s current “stop-and-frisk” policy unconstitutional.  Though the ruling did not end the city’s practices, the judge ordered the independent monitoring of police.  A primary concern is that people of color have long been overwhelming targets of the police stops in New York, with more than four-fifths (83  percent) of those frisked being Blacks or Latinos between 2002 and 2012, despite the fact that these groups each constitute about 25 percentof the city’s population.

Stop-and-frisk has received much attention because the local government consciously pursued a policy identified in the judge’s ruling as “indirect racial profiling.”  Even with the hope that this judgment will catalyze a revamp of stop-and-frisk, it is important not to look at this case just as a legal matter.  Throughout the United States, there is a long-standing legacy of disproportionate minority contact with law enforcement, and disproportionately negative contact at that.  

With or without formal recognition, there’s a stockpile of evidence that communities of color are often on the wrong side of a police’s baton.  Earlier this year, another federal judge found that notorious Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio had engaged in racial profiling through his overzealous efforts to supersede federal immigration law.  In a study of low-income Latinos in the South, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 47 percent of those surveyed knew someone who had or directly had been mistreated by police.  Nationally, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights published broad findings of racial profiling, including proof that Blacks and Latinos were two to three times more likely to be searched at traffic stops.  Finally, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recently launched effort on sentencing reform brings to light the disproportionate arrest and punitive sentencing on minorities for low-level drug offenses.  These and numerous other studies confirm NCLR’s own research and analyses demonstrating that Hispanics face discrimination at every stage of the criminal justice system.

StopAndFrisk_pic2Through its work with Latino youth, NCLR has found young Latinos have almost come to expect profiling by police.  Examining experiences of youth hailing from diverse parts of the country, NCLR researchers found that almost all expressed a belief that authority figures, including law enforcement, had negative perceptions of Latino youth—and many had already had runs-in with police.  Studies show that just one negative interaction with the police can increase a youth’s risk of further contact with the criminal justice system.  When reading the youths’ own words, it easy to see how relationships with law enforcement could be poisoned.

“I got stopped like five times by the same cops for no reason.  I be walking down my street ’cause, you know, on Valley Street, there’s a park right there.  I be walking down there all the time…to play basketball.  I see these [police] were over there [and they said], ‘Come over here, son.  Come over here.’  I said, ‘What now?’  ‘You got anything on you?’  ‘No.’  ‘Put your hands up.  You’re under arrest.’  I said, ‘For what?  I just came to play basketball!’  ‘So what.  You ain’t supposed to be here.’  I didn’t know!”  (Rhode Island, U.S.-born, male)

“I have this White friend named Rick…And you look at this guy, and you think this guy’s family’s been White forever.  He’s come from England or whatever.  And it was me, him, my friend José, and our friend Junior, and the police stopped us…They gave all of us curfew tickets except for Rick.  They just stopped us, they lined us up, and they said, ‘Okay.  You can go,’ to Rick.  And he just, like, walked away.  And then they just got my friend José mad, and he’s, like, ‘Hey, why are you letting the White boy go?’  And they’re like, ‘Hey, you shut your mouth.’ ” And then they threatened to arrest [José]. (California, U.S.-born, male)

New York City officials have claimed that they need to carry out stop-and-frisk to ensure that they maintain the city’s low crime level, but crime rates have been going down nationwide, including in jurisdictions that have very different approaches to policing.

StopAndFrisk_pic3.pngEven if the policy were effective in reducing crime, there are many reasons the approach should be revisited.  First of all, the 14th Amendment guarantees all Americans the equal protection of the law, a commitment undermined by policies like stop-and-frisk that target people based solely on race or ethnicity.

Then there are the practical considerations; for example, the policy reflects a serious mis-allocation of resources.  Of all those stopped by New York City police, nine of ten individuals were found entirely innocent—without cause to issue a summons or pursue arrest.   With so many resources targeted to the innocent, one wonders how it helps police pursue those individuals posing the most harm to New Yorkers.

More importantly, over the long term, the policy is counterproductive.  Effective law enforcement requires trust between the police and the community.  The trust in communities where stop-and-frisk has been carried out has been eroded and it’s only matter of time before that trust is completely broken.  Is anyone really surprised when people who feel unjustly engaged by police (e.g., the 90 percent of folks who are innocent that are stopped repeatedly by police) are reluctant to contact law enforcement when it really matters?

New York City’s government is being forced into this conversation thanks to the wisdom of a judge, but this is not only a problem for the Big Apple.  Across the nation, there are a series of unofficial stop-and-frisk policies that often leave innocent people, who are disproportionately minorities, with fear and sometimes even contempt for the officials who are there to protect them.  By reviewing and modifying its policies, cities such as Philadelphia are showing that there is some middle ground on this issue.  Because, at the heart of it all, these policies only work if people feel that the law is made for, and not against, them.  Law enforcement must carry out practices that foster relationships between police and the citizenry, thereby creating a culture that respects and ultimately upholds the rule of law, rather than one where people are targeted based on their skin color or speech accent.

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