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Jason A. Ota&ntildeo Headshot

Beyond the Numbers - Stop-and-Frisk from the Perspective of the Profiled

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It all happened so fast. The memory plays back in slow motion. The car screeches to a halt alongside us and four men jump out. "Up against the car!" one of the men barks, as the others pushed the three of us up against the vehicle. "Where are the weapons? What do you have on you?" he continues, while one of his partners kicks my legs apart and commences the pat-down. One of my friends is spitting expletive-laden venom at the officer frisking him, while the other joins me in trying to calm him down in an attempt to avoid further escalating the situation, all the while trying to control our own emotions.

This wasn't the first time it happened. It wouldn't be the last. In fact, it happened to the three of us before - walking down the same block. What makes this instance so memorable was that it happened in front of classmates. It was our junior year in college and we were making our way back from one of the bars off-campus. This time, fellow students would stand by and watch while others would just pass by whispering to one another about what was going on. The cops must have thought that the three Latinos in leather jackets were there to rob the college students on their way back to campus.

In the end, the only thing they would find on us was our Fordham student I.D.s.

The NYPD stop-and-frisk policies have made their way back to the fore of the New York City political consciousness in a flurry of media commentary. I will not go into the statistics here; my purposes are to speak from the perspective of the profiled.

For the most part, I have always had a positive view of the police throughout my life. My uncle was a Captain in the Department of Corrections and my godmother's husband was the XO of one of the toughest precincts in Brooklyn. As a son of a firefighter, I am no stranger to the dangers that our uniformed public servants put themselves into in the service to our City, nor the burdens their families face as a result. Today, some of my closest friends are officers of the NYPD and I have a great relationship with officers up and down the chain of command.

More than a decade later, however, I still remember the humiliation. Today, even while the chief legal advisor for a top elected official I still subconsciously tighten up as the police pass by. After all, in a random encounter on the street, they don't know me and they don't know what I do. Will I get thrown against a car again? Are they going to stop-and-frisk me? Not exactly the feelings that should be engendered in relation to those who are there to protect you.

At the core of the stop-and-frisk controversy is the relationship between our communities and the police force charged to serve and protect them. Unfortunately, we have already gotten to a place where communities of color have adopted a siege mentality in relation to the police.
Many believe that this defensive stance toward law enforcement is nothing but an overblown persecution complex. According to Rep. Peter King, I should be thankful for the stop-and-frisk policy. After all I'm a minority and I'm still alive. Somebody should remind the esteemed congressman from central Long Island that he does not represent one person affected by these policies.

Last week, City lawmakers lead by Councilmember Jumaane Williams introduced several bills meant to quell the stop-and-frisk controversy. These proposed reforms would require officers to provide those they stop with a business card; create a cause of action for those who believe they have been wrongly stopped on the basis of their race or ethnicity; and require officers to create a written record of an individual's consent to search. Questions remain as to whether this can even be done at the Council level.

There is no doubt that the City must find a way to vastly improve upon the relationship between its communities of color and the police department. Any serious reform of police policy and procedure should also include a ban on quotas, a more transparent effective civilian complaint process and better community relations training. Most of all, police brass, community leaders and elected officials must all work together to bridge the gap that has divided our communities of color and the police for far too long.