Roger McCormack, ’14, Columnist
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, in a 2010 meeting on the NYPD’s controversial “stop, question and frisk” program in which police may stop individuals in they have “reasonable” suspicion of criminality, catalyzed the arguments of critics alleging the policy disparately targeted minorities.
State Sen. Eric Adams alleged that the commissioner said “he wanted to instill fear in them, every time they leave their home they could be stopped by the police,” in relation to black and minority residents of New York City. The NYPD’s policy sheds light on the difficult demarcation between individuals civil liberties and the safety of society at large. Coupled with the often brutal tactics exhibited by the powerful, Roman poet Juvenal’s aphorism, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (who watches the watchmen?) suggests the danger that institutions wielding significant power can easily lapse into corruptibility.
The New York Civil Liberties Union’s summary of stop and frisk statistics from 2011 documents the following:
• “Young black and Latino men were the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops. Though they account for only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6 percent of stops in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406). Ninety percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.”
• “Black and Latino New Yorkers were more likely to be frisked than whites and, among those frisked, were less likely to be found with a weapon.”
• “In 2011 as compared to 2003 (the earliest year a gun recovery figure is available), the NYPD conducted 524,873 more stops but recovered only 176 more guns. This amounts to an additional recovery rate of three one-hundredths of one percent.” Unsurprisingly, citizens in heavily policed precincts report unwillingness to report crimes, fear of police, and the anxiety produced by provoking officer’s animus.
In tandem with this is a gruff police force, habitually using fierce arrest tactics. Similar with the stop and frisk statistics, roughness is often meted out on minorities, seldom on white criminals. New York has seen a vast drop in crime since the program’s birth in 2002, but the returns from stop and frisk have fallen into near obsolescence.
A study by Center for Constitutional Rights, taken from January 2010 through June 2012 records scants gains, with a mere 6 percent of stops resulting in arrest, 1.8 percent in appropriation of contraband , and .12 percent in firearms confiscation. Despite this, prejudice remains a large part of the neo-tribalism on display in the NYPD’s policies.
The NYPD’s policy is especially scarring to the communities it is intended to protect, sowing mistrust with heavy-handed tactics. A Bronx resident, Christopher Graham, was frisked while leaving a friend’s apartment and smashed into the wall of the apartment for verbally protesting and “flinching.”
A report from 2010 said police used force in six out of 10 stops in certain precincts in the Bronx, rates analogous in the 32nd in Harlem, though arrest rates for stops utilizing force were less than 13 percent. This means that the violent stops are rarely purposive — exuding more Mafia-like menace than the behavior of police who respect the rule of law.
A federal court recently declared elements of stop and frisk unconstitutional, citing evidence that “strengthens the conclusion that the NYPD’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later,” according to U.S. Judge Shira A. Scheindlen.
The case Ligon v. City of New York focused on police hired to patrol private residences for trespassers, a ruling that may be a harbinger for the broader policy throughout the city. Noting special hostility shown to young black men by police, the judge ruled the necessity for reasonable suspicion prior to police examination was being flouted.
Alarming is the lack of checks on police power prior to the court’s intervention, lending credence to critics of the city’s stop and frisk program, noting the racial disparity in stops as well as Fourth Amendment violations. The duty to defend the populace against “unreasonable search and seizure” bluntly collides with a policy by which, according to Salon magazine, in 5 million searches under the governance of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, more than 86 percent targeted black and Latino persons. Elucidating what constitutes “reasonable search and seizure” among members of the NYPD, The New York Daily News notes reliance on indications as flimsy as “furtive movements,” a perverse criterion for abrogating civil liberties.
The statistics belie the purported judiciousness of the program, garnering rave encomium from both Bloomberg and Kelly, with The New York Times reporting that among 700,000 stops, a vast majority of citizens were innocent of criminality. Leaving aside unconstitutionality, it is significant that procedures of police officers across the country are far less benign.
A recent atrocity In Frederick County, Maryland affirms this abominable behavior is not always limited to New York. At a showing of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Robert Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome, died after being roughly handcuffed and thrown to the ground by police.
The gross sin committed was disobeying theater employees who asked him to leave. Disgust and loathing is further roused at the police response: finding no criminal fault with officers’ actions.
A lawyer said the officers “did what was necessary under the circumstances, and they did what their training dictated that they do.” Inexplicable is what this training could be, or the obviousness that disabled persons require a differing level of treatment by police.
Police departments across the country have responses to abuse analogous to certain policies of the Catholic Church, in which policemen rarely face justice for abuses of power. In many cases allowed to lie, police have enabled the burden of maintaining innocence to vastly increase among citizens targeted in heavily policed areas.
In New York City in 2011 alone, hundreds of narcotics cases were thrown out of court after various police officers were alleged to be involved in the corruption of evidence, often in the form of planting drugs on a target. The war on drugs is partly responsible for the venality; funds are often awarded to police departments based on volume of arrests, as opposed to good police work. Poor policy and laws often breed the nefarious corruption that is easily wielded once money gains ingress among departments, providing odious motivations for officers.
Police utilization of confiscated property from drug cases likewise provides seedy motivations in choosing which cases to investigate and prosecute. Fear of running afoul of superiors stimulates a situation in which punishment is meted out in greater measure among those who fail to conform to a department’s standards than those who rough up a young black man for “furtive movements.”
While these policies appear suggestive of quotas officers must meet, police commissioners vigorously deny their existence. Illegal under New York State law and repudiated by Kelly, quotes are nevertheless revealed by some rank and file officers. In 2010, The New York Times reports, an NYPD officer, Adil Polanco, said that “our primary job is not to help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them.”
“At the end of the night you have to come back with something. You have to write somebody, you have to arrest somebody — even if the crime is not committed, the number’s there. So our choice is to come up with the number,” he said.
The scourge of the policy is best represented in the overflow of nonviolent drug offenders in U.S. prisons, with 2011 statistics showing 300,000 drug offenders are currently serving sentences, many for nonviolent offenses. The difficulty of an equitable defense against the word of a police officer exacerbates these trends, particularly among minorities who are unlikely to be fully aware of their rights.
Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” observes that “The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African-Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.” Floyd v. City of New York, a suit raised by 11 black and biracial men and a Hispanic woman, is currently being heard in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
The lead plaintiff, David Floyd, a Bronx medical student who was stopped twice by police — once while helping a neighbor into her home — depicts the plight of innumerable individuals guilty only of race and circumstance.
Hopefully, the federal court unequivocally strikes down the policy, enabling justice to surpass the machinations of degenerate institutions and the relentless penetration of the state.