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NEW YORK — At night, Jose LaSalle works for New York City's parks department. By day, he walks around the Bronx and in the neighborhoods of Brownsville and Harlem with his crew of cop watchers, hoping to protect young black and Hispanic men from what he says are unreasonable stop-and-frisks by police.
"Basically, I am patrolling the police just like the Black Panther Party did in California in the 1960s. I just traded the shotgun for a digital camera," says LaSalle, 43, who carries his cellphone with him in hopes of catching a stop-and-frisk on camera. Two years ago, LaSalle's stepson, Alvin, became a hero to stop-and-frisk opponents when he used his iPod to record the sounds of three cops who stopped him, accused him of "looking suspicious" and handcuffed him. LaSalle gave the recording to a filmmaker, who turned it into a short documentary that went viral.
Usually, LaSalle gives his phone number to young men he meets on the street, and sometimes they call him: "Yo, Jose. The cops are working some kid over here. Come over."
LaSalle shows up, walking around the neighborhood with his camera, letting the police know that someone is watching. Other times, he receives complaints from residents who say they can't leave their homes for fear of an officer slamming them against a wall. LaSalle marks the locations of complaints on a map, designs a route for his patrol and starts recording when he sees a cop approaching a young man.
That's what happened one January afternoon on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, for example. LaSalle and a few fellow cop watchers — activists and residents who patrol the neighborhood with him — saw two officers heading toward a young black man. LaSalle and his colleagues immediately drew closer, pulled out their cameras and surrounded the police. Baffled, the officers backed off, and eventually they turned around and walked away. LaSalle smiled; he couldn't hide his excitement.
Most officers, LaSalle says, appear astonished, angry or offended when he starts recording. Others, like Lesly Lafontant, a police officer in the Brownsville precinct, say they don't mind being watched. "It can be annoying sometimes, but let them use their cameras as long as they're not breaking the law," says Lafontant. He and his partner have nothing to hide, he says.
During Michael Bloomberg's three terms as mayor of New York, the stop-and-frisk program, which enables officers to stop and question people on the basis of "reasonable suspicion" of illegal activity, has expanded significantly. Last year the police stopped 533,042 people, compared with 97,296 in 2002. The police defend the tool as a strategy for getting guns off the street and keeping crime at an all-time low in the city. Opponents of the policy note that police-department data show that guns are found in fewer than 0.2 percent of stops and officers find no basis for summons or arrest in nearly 90 percent of stops.
Last week a federal judge ruled that the program violates the constitutional rights of minorities. In her ruling, Judge Shira Scheindlin stated what New York residents like LaSalle say they have recognized for a long time: that the police in New York City were routinely stopping people because of their skin color. The city is appealing the decision.
Scheindlin didn't put an end to stop-and-frisk, but for the first time an independent court-appointed monitor will oversee broad reforms in the New York City Police Department. The judge also ordered the use of body cameras on officers during street encounters in at least five precincts to keep an eye on their procedures.
"That's exactly what I've been doing with my cop-watch patrols for the past two years," said LaSalle after he heard about the judge's order.
LaSalle isn't alone in his practice of watching New York cops. Other activists have been patrolling heavily policed neighborhoods of the city as well. In Harlem a group works the streets in cars, and in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, young men and women walk in teams. Last summer the New York Civil Liberties Union created a mobile app that enables cop watchers to stream footage of stop-and-frisk encounters directly to a database monitored by lawyers.
Sometimes a young father from Harlem, an elderly woman with her cane and other regulars join LaSalle on his walks. But he is out with his camera nearly every day, regardless of whether he has company.
He started his campaign against stop-and-frisk two years ago, not long after Alvin played the recording of his experience with stop-and-frisk after returning home that night. LaSalle immediately woke up Alvin's mother, Nancy, and they went to the 25th Precinct. LaSalle was furious, and Nancy yelled at the officers. They filed a complaint with the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau but never heard back. Nancy died of a heart attack later that summer.
LaSalle says Nancy saved him from the streets more than a decade ago, when he was released after 12 years in prison and was searching for a way back into the world of dealing drugs in East Harlem. He stepped up as a father figure for Alvin and got a job at a moving company, and 10 years as a law-abiding family man went by. "I guess she taught me to love myself, and that was really what I had been looking for," he said.
In the wake of his wife's death, LaSalle decided to dedicate his life to guard young black and Hispanic men like Alvin. LaSalle has a picture of Nancy tattooed on his chest, and when he folds his left hand around his camera, the letters L-O-V-E emerge on the back of his fingers from an old, faded tattoo.
No change on the streets
One year after Alvin played his recording for his stepfather, it was all over the New York news and sparked a debate on stop-and-frisk in the mainstream media. On Oct. 8, 2012, The Nation published a short documentary with Alvin and his audio recording on its website. Called The Hunted and the Hated, it quickly generated almost 900,000 views. Alvin, who declines to give his last name to reporters at his stepfather's request, became the face of a policy that many felt had gotten out of control.
Alvin says he sometimes runs into the officers who stopped him on the street that summer night in Harlem. They have not touched him again, but other police officers stop and question him, he says. "I am so relieved that this might soon be coming to an end," said Alvin, now 18.
Just a week after Scheindlin's ruling, LaSalle says he hasn't seen any change on the streets.
"A few days ago, I watched two officers order three teenagers on the ground, facing the concrete," he says. "They were just walking the street on their way to their friend's house."
But LaSalle was encouraged by the ruling. "Nobody wants to look bad on camera doing unconstitutional stops that might go all around social media," he says.
Until a court-appointed monitor starts observing the police department or a new mayor ends the stop-and-frisk program, LaSalle says he plans to continue his citizen patrols.
"If the kids don't feel they can trust the police, they will be easy targets for drug dealers and criminal gangs. I don't want that life for anyone," he says. "I hope to be at least one person in the street that they can trust, and that keeps me going.