By Paul Bisceglio
For some New Yorkers, the recording says it all.
“I just got stopped two blocks ago, yo,” argues Alvin, a 17-year-old walking home in Harlem.
“You know why?” says one of the three cops approaching him. “Because you look very suspicious.”
The cops search Alvin, and as he badgers them with questions, an officer threatens to take him to jail.
“What am I getting arrested for?” Alvin asks.
“For being a f—ing mutt,” the officer responds.
Alvin talks back, and a sergeant tells him to shut up. “I am going to f—ing break your arm,” the sergeants says, “then I’m going to punch you in the f—ing face.”
The Nation released this recording last week in a short documentary on Stop, Question and Frisk, the NYPD’s controversial inspection policy that allows cops to stop and examine anyone who arouses “reasonable suspicion.” Alvin captured the confrontation—the only known audio clip of “stop-and-frisk” in action, according to the magazine—on his phone last summer, on a day that he was approached multiple times by police for walking with his hood up and casting wary glances at patrolmen. The officer’s racial slur, though, suggests that these cops may have had ulterior motives for stopping him.
City advocacy groups have opposed stop-and-frisk for years on the grounds that police use the tactic to racially profile citizens and abuse their rights. For these groups, Alvin’s recording was not shocking. It was proof.
“This video confirms what communities of color have always known,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman in an interview. “The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk regime is out of control and undermining the ability of communities to be able to trust and respect the police.”
The New York City Council also worries about stop-and-frisk’s damaging effects on communities.
Two days after The Nation’s documentary was released, the Public Safety Committee held a hearing, on Oct. 10, in City Hall to discuss the Community Safety Act, four proposed bills that aim to reform stop-and-frisk and, more broadly, the NYPD’s accountability. A crowd of New York citizens joined advocacy group representatives at the hearing to testify in the bills’ favor, but first endured a three-hour wait as council members grilled Michael Best, chief counselor to the mayor and the sole testifier against the proposed bills.
“Stop, Question and Frisk is a critical element in NYPD’s law enforcement strategies,” Best repeated again and again in response to council members’ attacks on the policy. He was the administration’s only representative at the hearing, a fact lamented frequently by council members who believe Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly owe the Council a constructive dialogue on the issue. Bloomberg’s and Kelly’s absences spoke for them, though: Neither acknowledges any discrimination in stop-and-frisk practices.
“Do these bills get at a problem?” demanded Councilman Jumaane Williams, one of the bills’ lead sponsors, as he questioned Best.
“In general, the police is doing a very good job,” Best responded.
Council members cited plenty of statistics to the contrary, most popularly New York Civil Liberties Union’s analysis of NYPD stop-and-frisk records that found 84 percent of the 685,724 New Yorkers stopped last year were black or Latino (groups that together make up only 52 percent of the city’s population), and the NYPD’s own report that 88 percent of stopped citizens were innocent. Best objected that numbers alone could prove or disprove stop-and-frisk’s efficacy, arguing that the practice works in tandem with the NYPD’s other approaches that have significantly reduced the city’s crime and murder rates in the past decade. Mistakes are inevitable, he insisted, but in accordance with the law, police are only stopping and frisking on reasonable suspicion.
Yet when is suspicion reasonable? Underlying the hearing’s exchanges was a question of whether the alleged racial profiling is promoted by stop-and-frisk itself, or cops’ unlawful abuse of it. The Community Safety Act’s proponents face the challenge of writing legislation that holds cops accountable in interpersonal interactions that are very difficult to regulate. As Quinn put it in her opening remarks, “We’re here to discuss how the police themselves are policed.”
The four proposed bills would require officers to identify their name, rank and reason whenever they perform stops, as well as to inform the individuals stopped of their right to refuse searches. People or organizations affected by discriminatory profiling would be allowed to bring a lawsuit, and an independent office of the Inspector General for the NYPD would be established to oversee police practices.
Public testimony in favor of these changes lasted for hours, stretching into the afternoon as the hearing’s audience and council members diminished. Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, LGBT and homeless citizens shared one anecdote after another of mistreatment, and urged the Public Safety Committee to push for reform.
“There has never been a better opportunity to overhaul our city’s police department and ensure New Yorkers are protected against discriminatory policing,” said a representative of the Center for Constitutional Rights Advocacy Program. “The Community Safety Act can help lay the foundation for a police department that is not above the law, one that can protect our city while treating us all with dignity and respect.”
Proponents’ enthusiasm was checked, though, by Best’s earlier assertion that the bills, justified or not, contradict state law and curtail the mayor’s power, both of which would lead to legal entanglements.
“[The bills] will cause tremendous damage,” he added to emphasize the Act’s impracticability. “There could be immediate lawsuits from almost everyone in the city.” The amount of money required to hear and defend these cases, he argued, would be extraordinary.
Still, like the public testifiers, many council members were not afraid to state their personal investment in reform and to demand change. “It doesn’t work! It needs to be stopped now!” declared Robert Jackson, a black councilman who referenced his unjustly targeted family and friends. When Public Safety Committee chair Peter Vallone asked him to refrain from making speeches, Councilwoman Helen Foster cut in. “If [Vallone’s] father were an 88-year-old who’s being pulled over and called ‘boy,’ then it would be different,” she said.
“I have an obligation and a duty to ask these questions,” Councilwoman Letitia James said to Vallone later in the hearing, “and I will not be stopped by you or anyone else.”
The Public Safety Committee will continue to review the bills and consider public testimony. Two additional hearings will be held next week, in Brooklyn on Tuesday, Oct. 23, and in Queens on Wednesday, Oct. 24.
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