Only a few weeks ago, fellow PoliticusUSA writer, Becky Sarwate, provided us with the good news that a federal judge had finally said cease and desist to one form of racial injustice associated within our anti-minority justice system. Judge Shira A. Scheindlin issued a scathing ruling about the practice of stop-and-frisk, accusing the New York Police Department of “a policy of indirect racial profiling” that results in officers making a habit of stopping, “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.” While she didn’t eliminate the practice of stop-and-frisk (she couldn’t, the previously injudicious 1968 Terry v. Ohio ruling by the Supreme Court tied her hands), she did put in place oversight and monitoring including ruling that some police officers be required to wear cameras. The most important point Judge Scheindlin made was that this stop-and-frisk practice runs afoul of the 4th amendment which specifically protects citizens against unwarranted search and seizures by the government.
However, this week, a federal appeals court made it clear that making a person’s skin color probable cause for suspecting a crime is back in business, at least for the time being, as they put a stay on the reforms to stop-and-frisk Judge Scheindlin ordered. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed Judge Scheindlin from the case basically accusing her of judicial misconduct for failing to appear impartial and for giving media appearances to answer critics of her ruling.
Anyone familiar with scores of stop-and-frisk horror stories knows that the only probable cause the government has had to search millions of people was looking suspicious while black or brown. Researchers have found of the 4.43 million stops between 2004 and 2012, nearly 90% of the stops or searches were unwarranted by police in that they resulted in no basis for arrest. Meanwhile, 83% of those stopped were black or Hispanic. Doing some rough math, this means that about 3.3 million minorities (though many were likely targeted more than once) were stopped and manhandled by the police for no good reason whatsoever. But Heidi Grossman, an attorney for the city, has argued, “Crime drives where officers go, not race.” It’s not clear if she managed to keep a straight face. Of course, New York City is not alone in implementing racist policies. In Oakland, a study found that fully 78% of arrests of black juveniles were “not sustained” in the end. The nation’s largest sheriff’s department, in Los Angeles, was also found guilty of unlawful racial profiling in its stop-and-frisk practices. Similarly, Philadelphia has put the racially-linked stop-and-frisk policy into practice.
Ray Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg, and other proponents of stop-and-frisk defend the practices by saying that targeting minorities is reasonable, because they commit more crimes. Critics of this argument note that if law enforcement constantly puts their attention on minorities, those are the only kinds of criminals they will see. For example, white people use marijuana at higher rates than blacks, yet police believe that blacks are more likely to be carrying drugs, so that is who they search. Consequently, they find more marijuana on black people, thereby justifying their erroneous claim that black people are the people they should target for drugs. It’s a circuitous fallacy, and it should be unconstitutional. Yet, Bloomberg has made the ludicrous claim that white people are stopped and frisked too often by officers. In a moment of rare insight that appeared to pass in a flash, Bloomberg admitted he might feel differently about stop-and-frisk if he had a (black) son who was stopped. But this man has a deep and abiding contempt for poor people, because he also proposed that every resident of public housing be fingerprinted. No word on why he didn’t propose the entire population of New York City get fingerprinted.
Proponents of the policy make numerous claims about its benefits. With no evidence whatsoever, and a claim that doesn’t pass a sniff test, Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly suggested that limiting stop-and-frisk would increase the risk for terrorism. Right, because looking for a terrorist by rifling through the pockets of black teenagers couldn’t be said to differ from searching for a needle in a mountain of hay by searching every piece of straw. When they aren’t spouting hyperbole about terrorists, this pair is busy insisting that stop-and-frisk saves lives. Of course, there is no evidence for that. In fact, the most rigorous research study to examine the issue shows that stop-and-frisk has no appreciable effect on lowering crime whatsoever. So what explains the reduction in crime since the 1990s, if not stop-and-frisk policies? Evidence is pouring in from researchers across multiple disciplines showing that lead contamination that was a scourge of urban areas particularly up until the 1980s, resulted in a few generations of young people experiencing brain damage strongly linked to criminal behavior. The most recent generations of young people are some of the least violent, and for black youth, the least criminally inclined in decades. Someone needs to sit Kelly and Bloomberg down with a chalkboard, a lecture on basic scientific principles, and an overview of the research, so they finally learn their policies aren’t lessening crime, other factors are. They suffer from spurious reasoning.
Audiotaped evidence of police misconduct during stop-and-frisk incidents had been shameful and laced with racism. For example, a video has surfaced from a stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia in which the police officer tells the detained black individual, “All you do is weaken the f*cking country.” The vast majority of these stops are not audio or video recorded, and all we have are the reports of the victims of unreasonable search and seizure who tell us about the abusive language and manhandling they experience. The atmosphere created by racial profiling and stop-and-frisk contributed to the type of environment that led to Travon Martin’s death and could harm others, according to his mother and others. The NYPD has a history of treating the city’s people less than humanely. Recently, a warrant squad was observed wearing T-shirts with the Ernest Hemingway quote, “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” This wasn’t the first time a police unit in NY wore this quote on their clothing. So, did the officers who killed an innocent man, Amadou Diallo, by shooting him 41 times.
Officers Adhyl Polanco and Pedro Serrano have testified on behalf of the people, providing audiotaped evidence of police commanders specifically telling officers to meet quotas and target black males. Polanco also testified to abuse from fellow officers for his willingness to discuss NYPD stop-and-frisk practices, as well incentive programs and punishments meted out for those who weren’t willing to get on board with stop-and-frisk policies. At least one unjustifiable NYPD practice has ceased due to a law suit by the New York Civil Liberties Union; they are no longer storing the names of people who have been stopped, frisked, and arrested, but later cleared in a database.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, and the majority of white people have not, I have been illegally detained by police, and it stirs a rage inside you that you wish you’d never knew was there; it’s very jarring to know that one can feel so capable of becoming violent. In the interests of full disclosure, my own experience with stop-and-search occurred because I was with a black man in the wrong part of the city (read: where the white folks live). The white officers who pulled us over said we looked suspicious, because “black people don’t belong over here.” The hour we spent, handcuffed in the back of the police cruiser while they tore apart my friend’s car was humiliating, enraging, and inexcusable. There was absolutely no reason to have stopped us, not even a missed turn signal. But, racism is built into our criminal justice system, and it is going to take serious reform to reverse its incalculable damage.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.
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