Best Commentary

Why Not Ease Up On Stop and Frisk?

Issue date: 1/4/10
Section: Commentary

By Kesi Foster, The City College of New York

Critics of police policy say stopping half a million mostly innocent New Yorkers takes too steep a toll on freedom and dignity. With crime way down, now's the time to give the practice a rest.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, crime in New York City has declined for the 19th straight year. In 2009, crime fell citywide, across nearly all categories. If crime goes down every year, why does the number of people - make that mostly black and Latino people - being stopped by the police under the Bloomberg administration's "stop, question and frisk" policy keep on rising?

Under the stop-and-frisk policy, officers are supposed to stop someone who they have reasonable suspicion to believe is committing, is about to commit, or already has committed an illegal act. Yet in the first nine months of last year, police officers stopped 400,000 innocent New Yorkers - even as crime went down.

As a person of color, I would love for a police officer to describe to me exactly what "reasonable suspicion" looks like. Then maybe I can practice not being so suspicious when I walk, drive or jog down the street. Maybe I could have avoided being pulled over one August day a few years ago on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, when I thought I was very unsuspicious driving down the street and adhering to our traffic laws. Still, I wasn't surprised when I was pulled over by plainclothes NYPD officers. After detaining my passenger and me by sitting us on the curb, the officers explained they had reasonable suspicion to believe the crime that we were, had been, or were about to be involved with was the kidnapping of a little girl. Once they established that she wasn't in my glove compartment, they let us go on our way. Who knows, maybe they stopped everyone that day who drove a white Honda Accord.

A friend apparently was considered suspicious while riding his bike in Clinton Hill just a few months before that incident. What was the criminal activity they thought he might be engaged in or about to engage in? There had been a rash of purse snatchings in the area. True, he had just bought an apartment in the neighborhood, so he was low on cash, but what kind of neighbor would he make, snatching purses just after moving in?

I suppose the officers who hopped out of an unmarked van in Chelsea must have had reasonable suspicion to detain my own older brothers while they were parked on West 24th Street one day. What did they do that was suspicious? The officers explained their suspicions were aroused at the way my brother approached the driver-side window. What criminal activity did the police think they might be engaged in? There were a lot of carjackings in the neighborhood. Here I thought crime in the city has been steadily decreasing. I had no idea Chelsea was being plagued by carjackings.

NYPD Sergeant Reginald McReynolds may also be wondering why he looked suspicious, when he was recently harassed by fellow officers - according to a Daily News article - for no apparent reason other than walking (or bringing takeout to his girlfriend) while black.

These are just a few stories, but ask any black or Latino person and chances are they will have their own personal stories and experiences with "stop and frisk." After all, they made up 82 percent of the 531,159 people stopped by the NYPD in 2008 for "reasonable suspicion," according to a New York Times article. The numbers make clear something that people have been saying for years: The color of your skin is enough to make you reasonably suspicious.

Yet the suspicions prove to be unfounded: according to records obtained by the New York Civil Liberties Union, nearly nine out of 10 stops yielded no charges or citations. Those stopped were innocent.

Who will speak out against this practice? Black leaders have the kind of access to City Hall that they never had under Mayor Giuliani, and Mayor Bloomberg has been widely praised for improving race relations across the city. Prominent black pastors including Rev. Floyd Flake, Rev. Calvin Butts, and Rev A.R. Bernard all exhorted their congregations to support Mayor Bloomberg's bid for a third term, and Rev. Al Sharpton has been pals with Bloomberg since his first term. Yet Bloomberg backs the current stop-and-frisk practice. Will black pastors call on him to end the practice in his third term? They asked their congregations to support Bloomberg, so why not ask the mayor to end state-sanctioned harassment of their members?

What about the City Council and the state legislature? For the first time since he took office, Mayor Bloomberg has been visibly weakened, by barely beating the massively outspent Comptroller Bill Thompson. Will our representatives use this opportunity to help end the racial profiling of thousands of New Yorkers? What about the Council's black, Latino and Asian caucus - why aren't they up in arms about ending "stop and frisk"?

Maybe it's time we asked them: Where do they stand?

In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer could stop someone without "probable cause" if that officer has reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. Basically the highest court in America gave the police carte blanche to stop people for any reason they can pull out of their caps. But the Supreme Court opinion in Terry v. Ohio also said, "[I]t is simply fantastic to urge that such a procedure performed in public by a policeman while the citizen stands helpless, perhaps facing a wall with his hands raised, is a 'petty indignity.' It is a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment, and it is not to be undertaken lightly."

May inflict great indignity? It does inflict great indignity. It's demeaning, frustrating, angering, and generates deep resentment against the police, who are supposed to be protecting and serving all citizens.

If we truly lived in a post-racial society, parents wouldn't need to have the talk with their children about how to react when unjustly stopped by police, at the same age they have the talk about the birds and the bees. "Remember to remain calm. Don't make any sudden movements; reaching for your wallet could get you killed." In a post-racial society, a policy as frivolous and ambiguous as "stop and frisk" wouldn't be tolerated.

Maybe not in a low-crime society, either.

If we are ever going to try a new approach to policing in New York City, isn't this a great time to start?