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When "Stop and Frisk" Becomes "Stop and Hurt"

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It's troubling enough to know that almost 700,000 New Yorkers -- overwhelmingly black and Hispanic men -- were targeted for police stop-and-frisk searches last year. But to open The New York Times last week and learn that in four neighborhoods, more than 50 percent of stops used excessive force is horrifying.

I could ply you with more statistics from the Times study. I'll let one of the victims speak for himself instead:

It was in the 46th Precinct that Christopher Graham said he was stopped by two officers last winter as he and a friend were leaving his friend's apartment building. The officers guided them to the wall of the building and began frisking them, Mr. Graham, 19, said. When the officer got to his groin area, Mr. Graham flinched, he said.

"I said, 'Whoa, what are you doing?' " Mr. Graham recalled. "The cop put his hand on the back of my cap and, boom, smashed my head into the wall of the apartment, for no reason."

The resulting gash sent blood gushing down his cheek and took six stitches to close, he said. Mr. Graham, who was neither arrested nor issued a summons in the stop, still bears a scar next to his left eye. (The New York Times)

I encourage you to read the full piece. If you hadn't understood the scope of the stop-and-frisk problem in New York City before, you will today.

Each one of us should face the troubling fact that this "news" is not actually new; incidents of stop and frisk abuse have long been reported by black and Hispanic New Yorkers. What's new is the way isolated incidents of racial profiling and NYPD abuse have grown into what looks like institutionalized racial violence perpetrated by officers on the beat across the entire city. Christopher Graham's story may be new, but he's one in a long line of victims.

I used to coordinate the Urban Conservation Corps program for the Parks Council, now called New Yorkers for Parks. Our program employed 30 young people through the Americorps service program to rehab old parks and build new gardens in areas with little or no safe, open green space.

Marvin was one of the nicest young people in the program. He was a lifelong East New Yorker committed to improving the quality of life in his neighborhood. Mild-mannered and caring, Marvin was a model community member and a role model for his peers. He was also black.

One morning, he came in pretty beaten up. I thought he'd been mugged, or had gotten into a fight. Instead, Marvin explained that while on his way home from a late basketball game with his brother the night before -- doing nothing but walking and dribbling a basketball -- the cops pulled up, threw them both against a wall, and brutalized them. He had no idea why.

That was in 1998.

No one doubts that crime remains an issue in New York City, or that reducing it is a priority. But stop-and-frisk isn't making our neighborhoods any safer. Racial targeting and police violence do nothing but criminalize race and widen rifts between officers and the communities they serve, ultimately making their jobs harder. It's no coincidence that the precincts where officers are most likely to use excessive force are also the precincts with the lowest rate of arrests following stop-and-frisks. A friend on the force also confides that these policies exacerbate tension between ethnic and racial groups.

Those of us who care about reducing crime and preserving civil liberties would do well to look beyond the statistics and stereotypes at the systemic social and institutional issues that correlate with increased crime, and to ask some difficult questions. Why does each NYPD precinct have only a handful of Community Affairs officers actively trying to improve communication between the community and the police force, but hundreds of officers to abuse stop-and-frisk searches? How are we committing ourselves to transforming access to educational and employment opportunities for our low-income neighbors? How are we working to transform a prison system that's more about retribution than reform, that's more about the profits of private prisons than restorative justice?

Thankfully, there are a number of organizations working hard to change current NYPD practices. North Star Fund became the fiscal sponsor for the Communities for Police Reform campaign because of stories like Christopher's, Marvin's, and the thousands of others who have suffered the same treatment. (Visit the CPR website for a comprehensive overview of the impact of stop-and-frisk and the ways organizers are working to end it.) And our grantee partners, like Make the Road New York, VOCAL, the Justice Committee, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Picture the Homeless are doing the critical groundwork that will ultimately end this needless practice.

We need to answer the broader questions about increasing equality and opportunity for all to ensure New York City's successful future as a beloved city worthy of being upheld as a model metropolis. And we must demand police reform now to create a better present.