Ever since the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed this spring that the city’s police department stopped and frisked more blacks and Latinos than actually live in the city — a staggering 87 percent of those stopped last year were black or Latino — the world has begun to take notice. The New York Times’ editorial board has railed against the practice. Stephen Colbert quipped during his show that this meant that either most black people experience stop-and-frisk multiple times or the city is under siege by “inter-dimensional black people.”
Two days after federal judge certified a class-action lawsuit on behalf of stop-and-frisk victims, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly moved beyond his call to critics to give him a better crime fighting solution, issuing a letter May 18 outlining how the department will audit stop-and-frisk records, enhance officer and supervisor training and increase community outreach. The response to Kelly’s turnaround has been varied.
NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman dismissed the letter as “nothing more than a desperate public relations attempt,” and said that Kelly must “give up the spin and recognize that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program is fundamentally broken.” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a likely mayoral candidate and a close ally of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was more diplomatic: “Commissioner Kelly and the NYPD are taking an important step forward; however, more must be done to significantly reduce the number of stops and to bridge the divide between the NYPD and the communities they serve.”
And Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said that summonses and stop-and-frisks are “highly effective” tools for curbing crime when police officers are able to use their discretion. However, when quotas are applied, he said, these tactics “become ineffective in fighting crime and serve as a tremendous source of friction with the communities that our members are sworn to protect. Eliminating unnecessary and counterproductive quotas will allow police officers to keep New York City safe while winning back the support of its citizens.”
The ordeal has prompted the hope that with Bloomberg’s departure at the end of 2013, the next mayor will reform the NYPD and end the use of stop-and-frisk. Not only is stop-and-frisk a humiliating tactic applied predominantly to people of color in low-income neighborhoods, but, according to the NYCLU, from 2002 through 2011, more than 80 percent of those stopped by police were innocent. When arrests do occur, they often result in misdemeanor charges for offenses like possessing small amounts of marijuana, creating a criminal record that can haunt that individual for decades. Even police advocates believe that this tactic creates hostility toward cops, making it more difficult to gather information in these communities.
Former City Comptroller William Thompson and his embattled successor John Liu have said they would replace Kelly, while Quinn, unsurprisingly, would extend his tenure at 1 Police Plaza. Two other likely liberal mayoral candidates, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who has been highly critical of stop-and-frisk, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, have yet to comment.
“We’re kind of at a crisis as far as young people are concerned,” said former NYPD Lieutenant Joanne Naughton, who is now a spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “It’s very difficult to have a career and have a decent job, and then when you have a criminal conviction, that makes it that much more difficult for young people.”
She added, “It’s kind of like: Enough. Police are doing the wrong thing. Young people’s lives are ruined.”
National Lawyers Guild New York chapter leader Gideon Oliver noted that with ongoing litigation against stop-and-frisk, the publicity around the practice continues to grow, forcing politicians to take bolder stances.
“It will have to be taken seriously as an issue. There has been a critical mass of attention to it, especially in the wake of the class certification decision,” Oliver said. “Hopefully, as people are talking about stop-and-frisk policies and practices and policing, people will also begin talking about different organizational models, like questioning the way the [city] Charter empowers the police department, and thinking more about models that are based more on community policing than CompStat.”
De Blasio, one of the more liberal contenders for City Hall, has claimed credit for Kelly’s modest reforms, saying that he previously urged the department to use the CompStat system to rein in the stop-and-frisk system. The problem with de Blasio’s approach, however, is that it treats the tactic of stop-and-frisk as the main problem, not as a symptom of larger injustices. Stop-and-frisk is simply one tool the NYPD has used to turn black and Latino neighborhoods into militarized zones in the War on Drugs.
Detectives Endowment Association President Michael Palladino has complained that young minority detectives are stuck in undercover positions during drug busts because white officers get recognized too easily by minority dealers. The underlying fact Palladino failed to note is that the War on Drugs targets people of color almost exclusively. Under Kelly, communities of color still live with pervasive informants and undercover police, as well as mobile watchtowers, which reinforce the martial nature of the police presence.
That’s what the next mayor is going to have to confront. While social justice activists and minority communities protest stop-and-frisk, the reality is that Kelly has remained relatively popular; in March, Quinnipiac University reported that 63 percent of New Yorkers think the NYPD is doing a good job. Kelly’s overall approval rating is 64 percent, with a 51 percent approval rating from black voters.
“People are still frightened of terrorism and people are willing to give up their freedoms,” Naughton said. “You can’t give up liberties and then think you live in a free country.”
But Oliver is confident that anger around the issue will percolate over the course of the next year and a half before Bloomberg’s term ends: “The critical mass is going to continue to grow in terms of people who are talking about it in the mainstream media and the activist community.”