Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Shame of New York


The New York Times

October 29, 2010

The Shame of New York


The whole notion of the rule of law, critical to a democracy, is sabotaged when the guardians of the law — in this case the officers of the New York City Police Department — are permitted to violate the law with impunity.

The police in New York City are not just permitted, they are encouraged to trample on the rights of black and Hispanic New Yorkers by relentlessly enforcing the city’s degrading, unlawful and outright racist stop-and-frisk policy. Hundreds of thousands of wholly innocent individuals, most of them young, are routinely humiliated by the police, day in and day out, year after shameful year.

Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public health at Columbia University and a widely recognized scholar on the subject of police and citizen interactions, has filed a report in support of a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the stop-and-frisk policy as unconstitutional. Based on analyses of the department’s own statistics, he found, as the plaintiffs and other observers have argued all along, that seizures of weapons or contraband as a result of the stops “is extremely rare.”

The rate of gun seizures is near zero — 0.15 guns seized for every 100 stops. “The N.Y.P.D. stop-and-frisk tactics,” wrote Professor Fagan, “produce rates of seizures of guns or other contraband that are no greater than would be produced simply by chance.”

More important, after studying six years’ worth of data, the professor concluded that many of the millions of stops are violations of the Constitution. One of a number of constitutional problems, according to Professor Fagan, is that the police frequently use race or national origin rather than reasonable suspicion as the basis for the stops.

“I provide evidence that the N.Y.P.D. has engaged in patterns of unconstitutional stops of city residents that are more likely to affect black and Latino citizens,” he wrote.

From 2004 through 2009, city police officers stopped people on the street and checked them out nearly three million times. Many were patted down, frisked, made to sprawl face down on the ground, or spread-eagle themselves against a wall or over the hood of a car. Nearly 90 percent of the people stopped were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

An overwhelming majority of the people stopped were black or Hispanic. Blacks were nine times more likely than whites to be stopped by the police, but no more likely than whites to be arrested as a result of the stops.

While crime has been going down, the number of people getting stopped has been going up. More than 575,000 stops were made last year — a record. But 504,594 of those stops were of people who had committed no crime, were issued no summonses and were carrying no weapons or illegal substances.

If the stops go up when crime goes down, it’s fair to wonder what might happen if there was no crime in the city. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly might decide that it is necessary to frisk everybody. The use of such stops has more than quintupled on their watch.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the class-action suit, wants the Police Department barred from engaging in what the center describes as race-based and “suspicionless stops and frisks.”

Professor Fagan, in his report filed in connection with the suit, found that nearly 150,000 stops over the six-year period that he studied lacked any legal justification at all. An additional 544,252 stops lacked sufficiently detailed information from the officers involved to determine their legality.

I’ve no doubt that the professor’s findings are, in fact, conservative. But even his figures show the police to be violating the Constitution on a scandalously vast scale. The police use such specious justifications as “furtive movements” or an alleged “bulge” in someone’s pocket as the basis for stopping people. If you believe all those furtive-movement and bulging-pocket stories, I’ve got some antiques spanning the East River that you might be interested in.

It’s important to keep in mind that what we are talking about here, in the overwhelming number of cases, are innocent people, not criminals. No one wants to stop the police from going after the bad guys. But what keeps happening with this lousy policy is that the cops target skin color, not the likelihood that a crime might be in progress, or have taken place. As Professor Fagan found, “Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be stopped than whites, even in areas where there are low crime rates and where residential populations are racially heterogeneous or predominantly white.”

It doesn’t matter if innocent black or Hispanic kids are in a high-crime area or low, a minority area or white, they stand a good chance of being harassed by New York City cops.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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