New York stop-and-frisk ruling brings cautious optimism

Judge's ruling could bring drastic change for many: 'I'm black so I'm used to it'

NYPD Inspector Rodney Harrison, center, and with his driver Officer Jimmy Hughes, left, stop three individuals in the stairwell of 212 West 129th street. January 2013
Joe Marino/NY Daily News/Getty Images

Last month, two police officers approached 26-year-old Kentrell Reed as he left his apartment complex in Brooklyn. One of them pulled out a gun and told him to put his hands in the air, Reed said. The officers then proceeded to search his pockets.

“They told me there was a shooting in the area,” Reed said. “I wanted to ask more questions, but I figured it was best that I just mind my manners… We've always been the first one that they point their finger at.”

Reed, who is black, said it was the seventh time he was stopped and searched without a warrant by police in the last year.

For Reed and thousands of other young black and Latino men in New York City, the police tactic of stopping and searching people deemed suspicious – known as “stop-and-frisk” – has become a familiar routine.  The New York Police Department makes hundreds of thousands of stops a year, primarily of young men of color.

But that may change drastically in the wake of a ruling in two lawsuits Monday by federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, who said that the practice violates the privacy and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Saying stop-and-frisk amounts to “indirect racial profiling,” she appointed an independent monitor to oversee changes in the tactic.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced the District Court’s findings, saying anything that threatened police autonomy would lead to less safe streets. Candidates vying to succeed Bloomberg in November jostled to show black and Latino voters which contender is on their side when it comes to relations with the NYPD.

Reed said he understands the practice "because they're trying to cut down on crime in the neighborhood.

“But it's the way they approach people,” he said. “They have a way of making residents of the area feel like criminals.”

"I'm used to it''

Reed is not alone in his nuanced opinion. Many say the way in which stop-and-frisk has been carried out – with seeming randomness, hostility and high frequency – is the biggest factor driving a wedge between the police and those they’re policing.

“I wouldn't have a problem with it if they’d treat everyone the same, but that's not the case,” says Sudan Gilmore, 48, a resident of the Queensbridge housing projects in Queens. “I feel violated, but what am I going to do? I'm black, so I'm used to it.”

Gilmore said he has been stopped about seven times, once in the last year. On the blocks surrounding the Gilmore’s housing complex, home to roughly 7,000 people, police made about 1,600 stops in 2012, according to city data. That is out of 532,000 citywide, down from an all-time high of nearly 700,000 in 2011.

While defenders of stop-and-frisk say it makes sense there are more stops in high-crime areas, critics counter that the stops are often based on race and appearance, rather than any likelihood police will find evidence of criminal activity.

Many of New York’s residents seem to agree the practice needs to be reformed.

“In this neighborhood, crime has been unbelievably high, so I think stopping people is good sometimes,” said Sherly Rivera, 29, a mother of three who lives in a public housing project on the east side of Manhattan. Rivera said she fears for her kids’ safety but also fears they’ll be harassed.

“[Cops] have pushed it too far,” she said. “They need to fix that.”

But when and how stop-and-frisk is reformed relies in large part on who becomes the next mayor of New York. 

Mayoral candidates respond

On Monday, several Democratic candidates for mayor released statements saying the court’s decision proved what many already knew: that the NYPD was unfairly targeting minorities. But details are scant about what the hopefuls actually would do with stop-and-frisk if elected, with the exception of Comptroller John Liu.

Liu said in a press release in response to Monday’s ruling he has been “clear and consistent in calling for its complete end based on stop-and-frisk being the biggest form of systemic racial profiling anywhere in the country.”

Front-runner Christine Quinn and progressive Bill de Blasio have called for a permanent inspector general to oversee the police force. But Quinn has signaled she would retain police Commissioner Ray Kelly, an ardent supporter of stop-and-frisk.

Other Democratic candidates were more measured in their critiques. Anthony Weiner wants the court to wait until the next mayor is elected to implement any new policies. And both he and Bill Thompson, the only black candidate in the race, oppose the idea of an inspector general.

Whoever becomes mayor, one thing is clear: reforming the NYPD will take a long time.

“For a practice that has been in effect for so long to change overnight, that’s unrealistic at best,” said Delores Jones Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a supporter of Scheindlin’s decision. “The real issues involved with this debate – race and ethnicity, socio-economic conditions, and the embedded beliefs that many have about who criminals are and are not … those would need to change before we can see a real change in the practice.”

On the streets

On New York’s streets, people held a similar view.

Earl Mapp, a 44-year-old construction worker and Brooklyn native, says he thinks of cops less as protectors than predators, standing on a hill and picking prey from the housing projects at random.

He carries his construction helmet and bag with him whenever he can because he says cops are less likely to stop someone who looks like he’s on his way to work.

Mapp hopes Scheindlin’s ruling will help mend the dynamic between cops and communities. But he’s not holding his breath.

“You can't change the heart and minds of people, at least overnight,” he said. “But it's a good place to start.”

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