On Saturday, May 12, several hundred people rallied in front of the New York City Police Department headquarters to protest the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” program, considered by many to be a prime example of modern-day, institutional racism. But with approximately 40,000 officers and a nearly $5 billion annual budget, the NYPD is the largest police force in the U.S. and, some say, the most powerful on earth. So how does one try to change an ongoing policy enforced by such an entrenched institution? According to some activists at the rally, the way to begin is twofold: by educating people about their rights during police searches and by mounting a community effort to do surveillance on the NYPD.
The “Stop and Frisk” program instructs officers to stop and question people at random — resulting in apparent racial profiling throughout the largest city in the U.S. According to the NYPD’s own statistics, out of 684,330 people stopped and frisked in 2011, 90 percent of them were black or Latino. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that mostly-black neighborhoods were heavily targeted by police, such as East New York in Brooklyn (50 percent black and 3 percent white), which had the highest number of stops last year with 27, 672. In contrast, Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood (57 percent white and 3 percent black) had the fewest stops, with 1,843.
However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg insists that the Stop and Frisk is making the city safer. “[The] stops are a deterrent,” he has said. “They prevent people from carrying guns in the first place. If you think you may be stopped on the street, you are a lot less likely to carry a gun. It’s that simple.”
But Bloomberg’s simple reasoning simply doesn’t add up. Despite the NYPD having its highest number of stops last year since the program officially began, 2011 saw a nearly 3 percent of shootings, according to The New York Times. An analysis by Forbes magazine shows that murder rates during the past decade of Stop and Frisk remained much the same as the previous decade. And although Bloomberg insists gun confiscation is the goal, the NYCLU report found that whites were more likely to be found with a weapon, even though 90 percent of people the NYPD stops are not white.
The harmful and wasteful program also preys on the public’s lack of knowledge regarding their rights, and that is how activists hope to start enacting change. Alfredo Carrasquillo of Vocal-NY — a group that helps people affected by HIV-AIDS, drug use and mass incarceration — and José Lasalle of Stop Stop and Frisk are both helping people in NYPD-targeted communities to learn what rights they have when dealing with police officers in order to fight back with the law.
Police have been accused of tricking people into allowing searches and even incriminating themselves. For example, having under 25 grams of marijuana is not a criminal act — as long as it is not “in public view.” However, the law is broken once a person carrying marijuana takes it out of their pocket and it is “in view.” Therefore, if a police officer stops somebody and forces them to empty their pockets and he or she takes out a joint, that person is now guilty of a misdemeanor — even though they did not legally have to empty their pockets and were not breaking the law by possessing a small amount of marijuana. The tactic takes advantage of the fact that people are intimidated by police power and do not know that they have a choice.
While growing up, Carrasquillo thought police stops were something one had to comply with. “I thought you had no authority to say police can’t search you,” he told me on the phone a day before the rally.
Working with everybody from churches to local high schools, Carrasquillo leads know-your-rights trainings to educate those especially affected by the Stop and Frisk policy: young black and Latino teenagers, as well as adults aged 18 to 25 — the NYPD’s primary profile of discrimination. It’s sometimes a challenge to convince people in those areas that they have recourse under the law. “A good portion of the communities feel they’re not even part of the American dream,” Carrasquillo said.
He has found, however, that education like this leads to further empowerment. “Kids take that new knowledge and they’re able to advocate in their communities,” he added.
At the May 12 rally, José Lasalle of Stop Stop and Frisk told me that he is frustrated with how the NYPD’s program has spun out of control.
“I’ve been a victim of Stop and Frisk all my life,” Lasalle said, referring to the longstanding history of police targeting low-income neighborhoods for drug searches before it became an official NYPD policy. “And then seeing it happen to my son, and then seeing it happen to my nephew, and then seeing it happen to the kids around my neighborhood, little 10-year-old kids getting thrown against the wall — it makes no sense. It’s got to stop.”
Lasalle has helped start new Stop Stop and Frisk chapters in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Harlem that offer know-your-rights education as well as cop-watching programs in which people can learn how to observe, document and report police activity in their communities.
The cop-watching programs that Stop Stop and Frisk have started are not intended to simply document police officer wrongdoing and put videos online. They are also intended to protect residents from inexperienced police officers. According to Lasalle, many of the neighborhoods that the NYPD targets for Stop and Frisk tactics are considered “impact zone areas,” which is where many inexperienced cops are placed. (See AllThingsHarlem.com for several videos of officers “practicing” on Harlem residents.)
“In the impact zone areas, the NYPD sends rookie police officers who don’t know how to deal with the community,” Lasalle said. “So we are there, making sure that they carry out their duties with professionalism and respect. We observe them and we document the things that they do. [The police officers] see us observing and documenting them and they relax and don’t get out of hand when they stop somebody.”
Much like Carrasquillo of Vocal-NY, Lasalle has found that fear of police can be a hindrance to mobilizing people and encouraging them to challenge police authority. But legal organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild have helped quell some of those fears by providing legal help and jail support in case cop-watchers are arrested.
People like Carrasquillo and Lasalle have helped push the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk tactics to the forefront of political debate in New York City, bringing national attention to the department’s policy. While Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD insist that the policy saves lives despite the lack of statistics that prove their claims, activists insist that the bullying, harassment and overzealous actions of police officers are a greater threat.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, too,” Lasalle said. “We’re trying to save lives.”
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