The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program has created two very distinct sets of experiences for the residents of New York City. One portion of the population’s experience embodies relative freedom as we legally and culturally understand it. However, for minority residents of the city, the experience is part of a larger ongoing relationship to the state as potential crime-suspects and targets of surveillance and harassment. One city, two radically different experiences.
For those of you who have never had the displeasure of experiencing the city as a potential crime-suspect, stop-and-frisk is a tactic that essentially allows police to conduct a search of any person of their choosing at any time. So what defines “a person of their choosing?” Reasonable suspicion can be based on something as simple as “movement” or “clothing.” In 2011, so-called “furtive movements” provided the justification for a stop in more than 50% of 685,724 cases, while “clothes commonly used in a crime” was cited in more than 30,000 instances.
Though technically anyone is a potential target, statistics show that the overwhelming majority of individuals stopped and frisked in New York City are people of color. While only 54% of the city’s population is black or Latino, 87% of stops in the first quarter of 2012 involved this demographic. What is more, young black and Latino men made up 4.7% of New York City’s population, but constituted 41.6% of all stops in 2011. Staggeringly, police made 168,126 stops of young black men last year, a number that altogether exceeds New York City’s population of 158,406 young black men.
While New Yorkers are told that stop-and-frisk makes them safer, statistics show time and again that the program yields little in the way of crime prevention. In 2002, a year with 587 homicides, New Yorkers were subjected to 97,296 stops. Last year, 685,724 New Yorkers were stopped and the city experienced 532 homicides. Is the increase in stops by 588,428 directly responsible for the reduction in homicides by 55 persons? It is unlikely, as guns are recovered in only 0.15% of stops.
But perhaps New York’s stop-and-frisk program has never really been about crime prevention. In NY state senator Eric Adams’ sworn affidavit, New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly once said that stop-and-frisk is intended to serve as a psychological tool applied applied specifically to black and Latino communities. According to Adams, a 22 year veteran of the NYPD, Kelly said in a 2010 meeting that he “wanted to instill the fear in black and Hispanic youths that every time they leave their homes they will feel that they could be stopped and searched by the police.”
It would seem by admission from NYPD’s own that stop-and-frisk is intended to differentially create a climate of psychological stress and fear for New York City’s inhabitants. New York’s stop-and-frisk creates a bifurcation of lived experience, with working poor and poor people of color bearing the significant impacts of differentially enforced laws. By criminalizing minor deviance and intimidating people who mostly lack access to the governing coalition in the city, stop-and-frisk demarcates existing lines of race and class. The impact goes beyond the minority experience in the city, as it also sculpts the perception of young black and brown men as deviants, which is in turn used as justification for further repression.
Fear of punishment for a crime is no longer the primary determinant of behavior. Instead, fear of arbitrary targeting for crime not committed nor even contemplated has become a primary determinant of behavior and experience for New York’s minorities. For, under stop-and-frisk, an individual no longer has to commit a crime to experience a total suspension of rights. The state now meets the individual with the threat of suspension of basic rights each day through humiliating public displays of power, temporarily criminalizing subjects and serving notice to the rest of the community.
In the New York Times editorial, “Why Is the N.Y.P.D. After Me?”, Nicholas K. Peart, a young African-American male targeted for a stop-and-frisk on five separate occasions, poignantly describes the psychological effect of this policing tactic.
“After the third [stop-and-frisk] incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don’t hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York.”
US district judge Shira Scheindlin’s recent ruling allowing victims of stop-and-frisk to proceed with a class action Federal Civil Rights lawsuit against New York City further confirms Nicholas Peart’s experience and raises serious concern as to the legal basis of this NYPD tactic.
“The increasingly widespread use of this policing tool in New York City is not to be taken lightly, even in those cases in which the individuals are not detained for more than a few minutes,” wrote judge Scheindlin. “It is deeply troubling if thousands of New Yorkers are being stopped each year without reasonable suspicion, and even more troubling if African American and Latino New Yorkers are being singled out for such treatment.”
While the judge’s decision does provide an avenue for financial recourse for victims of stop-and-frisk, it does nothing to force the NYPD to abandon this racially and socio-economically biased approach to policing.
To ensure that a public institution as large and important as the NYPD operates in accordance with our own societal ideals and guarantees in a constitutional democracy, it is imperative to have its powers checked. Until this type of oversight is institutionalized, it is likely that we will continue to see the use of excess power as well as its differential application on the inhabitants of New York.