‘What am I supposed to do? Is it stop every black and Hispanic?’: Stop-and-Frisk’s Racial Profiling

Floyd v. the City of New York is a class-action trial where witnesses and officers are arguing that the New York Police Department does use race as a basis for its stop-and-frisk program. The stop-and-frisk program is a program where officers can stop and question a person when they have reasonable suspicion a person is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a crime. Only after that can they frisk the stopped person for weapons. In his article for The Nation, Ryan Deveraux writes that lawyers are trying to prove that people being stopped ‘for no reason’ is being done department-wide by the NYPD and that this violates both the 4th (protection against unreasonable search and seizure) and 14th Amendment (the equal protection clause).

Attorneys are trying to convince the judge to reign in millions of stops that they believe are unconstitutional. Many believed the stops have to do with racial profiling because more than 86% of the people stopped by the police were black or Latino. Almost 90% of these stops resulted in not one ticket or arrest. Officers have been testifying that they were pushed to meet quotas of 5 stop and frisks, 20 summons and 1 arrest every month. Police have been doing such an outstanding job at meeting their quotas that more young black men were stopped than the total number of young black men in all of New York City.

Adding to the controversy is the death of Kimani Gray, who was killed by two police officers in plain clothes. According the Patricia J. Williams in her article, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”, Mr. Gray was shot at eleven times, and was hit by 7. Witnesses say Gray pleaded for his life. The police that shot him were decorated for bravery, but also have cost the department more than $215,000 in payout for alleged civil rights violations. The officers maintained that the teenager had pointed a gun at them; however, witnesses strongly contradict the NYPD’s story. Many in the community are outraged and took to the streets where dozens were arrested. The stop-and-frisk program which is targeting men of color is done using brutal and even deadly force. There is an estimated 4.4 million people that have been stopped.

Many who are stopped by the NYPD feel degradation and humiliation. One 24 year-old African American stated he was stopped five times without cause, one was even at gunpoint. Some police officers have stated that there are internal incentives that motivate them. An officer testified that supervisors put a premium on stop-and frisk numbers, arrests and summons, but care little for anything else. These quotas are called “productivity”. One officer who gave testimony, officer Polanco, stated that supervisors don’t care about the quality, or how they were gotten, but the quantity. Polanco played a recording where senior officers (two sergeants, an inspector, a lieutenant and three police union delegates) give officers quotas. The punishments for not achieving their quotas were losing a longtime partner, low evaluation scores, retraining and denial of days off or overtime requests. According to Deveraux’s article, “Polanco testified that in 2009 he was asked more than twenty times to write a 250 attesting to an incident he did not observe.” Polanco stated that he had no discretion, that sometimes the superior officers would just tell him to 250 [stop-and-frisk], summons or arrest someone. Officer Polanco stated, ‘We were handcuffing kids for no reason.’

Another officer, officer Serrano, was told that because of the violence in his precinct carrying out too little stop and frisks, or 250s, and not meeting his quotas was ‘not fair to the public.’ He responded ‘What am I supposed to do? Is it stop every black and Hispanic?’ The superior officer responded, ‘ I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this, male black 14 to 20, 21.’ Officer Serrano started to become emotional during his testimony, regretting the targeting of individuals based on their age, race and geographic location.

If you think 14 to 21 is young, one officer admitted to mocking a 13-year-old boy by telling him “stop crying like a little girl.” While the officer conceded that the taunt was wrong he claimed it was a lawful frisk because he was jaywalking and ‘yelling and making a scene’ when the officers tried to frisk him. Police were also sued in December for arresting a 7-year-old boy for stealing $5 from a classmate. Last year alone, $22 million was paid out for police misconduct.

According to Patricia Williams, although Bloomberg has praised the program for lowering the crime rate, criminologists and the New York Civil Liberties Union, dispute any causal connection since crime has gone down all over the US and in cities without such an antagonistic policy. Bloomberg and Kelley have admitted that abuses of power need to be addressed, but believe that the program is making NY streets safer. Interestingly though, Christie Thompson points out, “ . . . a gun was recovered in roughly .001% of the 685,724 stops conducted in 2011.”

In January a court ruling found that police stops conducted in front of several thousand private residential buildings in the Bronx were unconstitutional violating the fourth amendment–protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Although property managers asked police to patrol their building and to arrest trespassers, Judge Scheindlin said officers were routinely stopping people outside their buildings without reasonable suspicion that they were trespassing. Police need reasonable suspicion before stopping and questioning. The judge ruled that it is not enough to stop someone just because the building is in a high crime area and regardless of the time of day, or even because the person moved sneakily.

Raymond Kelly, the police commissioner believed the ruling gave the residents of the Bronx safety and that the landlords requested protection. He stated that the ruling interferes with efforts to use all necessary tools to fight crime.

What stop-and-frisk is doing is marginalizing young people of color. How is looking for black and Latino boys 14-20, 21 not racial profiling? By specifically targeting these people what police are saying is that if you live in poverty, are black and Latino you must be guilty of something. (Still think we live in a post-racial society?) This undermines our democratic principle of innocent until proven guilty. What stop-and-frisk is doing is creating a double standard, where if you’re white and affluent you have 4th and 14th Amendment rights, but if you’re poor, black and Latino you don’t. Police are supposed to serve and protect, not harass and antagonize. Just because these young men live in neighborhoods where there is crime, does not mean that they are criminals. As pointed out before, people’s skin color and geographic location is not what makes them criminals. As Kevin Powell writes, “In essence, we are demonizing and criminalizing an entire generation of black and latino teen boys and young men—many of them already mired in poverty, sub-par schools, and limited employment possibilities—for the rest of their lives. And before they even know what hit them.” To target such young boys–kids in poor neighborhoods, is to give them another impediment to success. Tacitly we’re saying then, that if you’re poor, black and Latino it is okay for police to harass you. Imagine if they were rich and white and being harassed this way? There’d be an uproar. This program allows officers to humiliate people and treat them like criminals before they’ve been found guilty. I understand the desire to prevent and stop crime, but it needs to be done justly and within the law, if not, then our police officers are criminals who are breaking the law too.

-Marina Espinoza

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2 thoughts on “‘What am I supposed to do? Is it stop every black and Hispanic?’: Stop-and-Frisk’s Racial Profiling

  1. A short video about the stop-and-frisk that takes place within the NYPD.

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