From Outside Occupation to Community Engagement
by Robert C. Koehler
Stopping crime before it happens is a great idea, but stopping young men for “walking while black” — touted by true believers as the same thing — is a game played by an occupying army.
The tactic is called stop-and-frisk. As practiced by many police departments, including New York’s, it amounts to blatant racial profiling. Stop-and-frisk makes it impossible for young men of color to lead normal lives, to walk outside without fear of preemptive police harassment. The long-term hatred and tension it engenders does far more harm to a community than all the questionable good that proponents ascribe to it. Security based on racism is a sham.
So I join in the celebration of Judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s ruling Monday in Manhattan’s Federal District Court, declaring the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional. She accused the city of “checkpoint-style policing” in minority communities and wrote in her decision, according to the New York Times: “Blacks are likely targeted for stops based on a lesser degree of objectively founded suspicion than whites.”
That is, blacks will be stopped for carrying a wallet or cellphone in their pocket, because the bulge could be a gun. The same thing happens in Chicago, where I live, and throughout the country. A young man out walking changes direction; he’s stopped and frisked. A young man parks his bike; he’s stopped and frisked, accused of riding his bike on the sidewalk. A young man is wearing a hoodie . . .
“No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life,” the judge wrote, according to the Times article, which added:
“During police stops, she found, blacks and Hispanics ‘were more likely to be subjected to the use of force than whites, despite the fact that whites are more likely to be found with weapons or contraband.’ . . .
“She emphasized what she called the ‘human toll of unconstitutional stops,’ noting that some of the plaintiffs testified that their encounters with the police left them feeling that they did not belong in certain areas of the cities. She characterized each stop as ‘a demeaning and humiliating experience.’”
Judge Scheindlin’s ruling in the case, Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, called for outside oversight of the police department’s stop-and-frisk practices rather than outright elimination, along with a series of community meetings to get public input and the establishment of a pilot program in which officers in at least five city precincts wear cameras that will record street encounters. This seems reasonable, though I share the skepticism of those who feel racism is structured into the system and real change is unlikely.
What makes the ruling remarkable is that it requires the police and city to incorporate holistic thinking into crime prevention and control.
The point of stop-and-frisk tactics is to stop crime before it happens, as in, whoa, that guy looks suspicious, we’d better pull him over. The logic in the concept is obvious. Some of the people caught in this net, especially in poor and crime-plagued neighborhoods, will be carrying incriminating evidence, such as a gun or drugs, and get arrested. Even though the arrest rate is low — about 6 percent of those stopped, according to former federal prosecutor I. Bennett Capers, and mostly for petty offenses such as marijuana possession — defenders of stop-and-frisk tactics give it total credit for New York’s drop in homicides and other crimes in recent years.
The link is faith-based. Capers also notes, for instance, that one gun is found for every thousand stops, no better a haul than completely random stops would elicit. But what do I know? Maybe the policy really has managed to reduce crime. Even if that’s the case, the damage it does remains enormous.
Stop-and-frisk policing leaves serious collateral damage in its wake. These aren’t neutral encounters; they’re emotionally charged. If 6 percent of those stopped are arrested, that means 94 percent are merely harassed and humiliated, reminded that they live in occupied territory and left to nurture bitterness toward the police. Like buzzing drones overhead or the presence of armed checkpoints in a community, stop-and-frisk policing is a tactic of occupation. The police impose order on a community and remain separate from it, answerable only to a distant government entity, not the locals.
This is a costly, inefficient and ultimately self-defeating way to keep order, especially when racism is part of the power imbalance. Eighty-four percent of the 4.43 million people stopped in New York since 2004 were black or Hispanic. This is a dangerous statistic, further evidence of an American caste system in operation. Even if it occasionally stops crime, it doesn’t bring security. As James Forman Jr. and Trevor Stutz wrote last April in the Times, “stop-and-frisk practices are harming the community in order to protect it.”
The District Court ruling hasn’t outlawed stop-and-frisk, just required outside oversight of it. That’s kind of the same thing as requiring accountability, but it was intolerable to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who will likely appeal the decision.
What a waste of energy. How can there be order without accountability? Crime prevention requires every facet of the community working together, not an army of occupation.
Robert C. Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at [email protected], visit his website at commonwonders.com, or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.