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A Kinder Gentler NYPD Is Not the Answer

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I have to admit prior to becoming CEO of NYUL I had never set foot at One Police Plaza. This omission was not for lack of opportunity. When I moved to New York over 20 years ago improving police and community relations was in vogue. Lee Brown was Police Commissioner, Mayor David Dinkins had implemented an initiative called Safe Streets, Safe Cities or "Cops and Kids" that funded more cops on the streets and encouraged police and youth positive connections. Yet when I had the choice of working in a number of city agencies as an Urban Fellow I declined -- and so did my classmates.

So fast forward 20 years -- I have visited One Police Plaza to take teams of youth to find out about careers in law enforcement. I've met women in leadership and men who look like me in the highest ranks of the department. My most recent visit was to a meeting of community leaders directly with Commissioner Kelly to discuss police community relations. I have to say, that as I was escorted up to the Commissioner's floor I can name a precious few times where I was treated more respectfully. But unfortunately this is not the experience I have walking the streets of my own Harlem neighborhood.

As a 40-something woman who is often wearing a business suit, I have never personally been stopped, questioned and frisked. Yet, I have experienced the impact of this policy. I have had youth arrive to programs I directed carrying police summons in their hands. Not only were the youth late, but they were visibly angry and upset. The planned programming had to be scrapped so that the group could discuss police community relationships. I have come home to find my brother-in-law stopped by officers on the steps of the brownstone that we share. However, it is not the individual stops that are of importance, but the fact that stop, question and frisk was implemented to help get illegal weapons off the streets. In this goal the policy has not been successful. There have been 203,500 stops in the first three months of this year and just 260 guns were confiscated in the stops. In the meantime, the courts are filled with marijuana infractions and a generation of people of color is seething with their perceived injustice.

Much has been written about rooting out a small number of bad apples in the New York Police Department. Much has been written around whether the force itself is inherently racist since the small amounts of marijuana that are found on folks arrested in stop and frisk does not equate to more than that found in a college dorm room. But the question remains why has there been such an escalation in the number of stops, and what can we do to stop the stops? The Urban Justice Center's Police Reform Organizing Project recently released a study regarding "How 'Productive Goals' Drive Harsh and Unjust Policing" highlighting the aggressively enforced productivity goals that force well-intended officers to make honor-roll students to petty criminals "assume the position" (arms up over head, legs spread) of hardened criminals. Training officers to be more courteous while enforcing stop, question and frisk is not the answer. One has to look at the underlying aggressively enforced policy that leads to so many innocent people being stopped daily.

Our mayor and police commissioner insist that stop, question, and frisk saves lives, but what about the hundred thousand innocent people who have exchanged stories of being stopped throughout their adolescence? What about the generation of students who have records for small amounts of marijuana that may preclude them from ever attending college? What about the generation of young men who do not know if they should leave for work early Monday, Tuesday or any other given day of the week. The question is not whether they will be stopped, it is a question of when.

While I welcome a kinder, friendlier and better trained police force, New York needs to look at the policies behind the problem. New York needs to pass the marijuana legislation supported by Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Kelly, and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. And the NYPD needs to examine how productivity goals may be contributing to the criminalization of a generation.