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Stopping "Stop and Frisk" in New York City

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I want to make it very clear from this first line that I believe in safe streets, prosecuting crime, and in giving the New York Police Department and our criminal justice system the tools they need to do their jobs both effectively and constitutionally. Indeed, I have lived in Brooklyn, New York, New York City's largest borough, for two decades, and I am a community leader who works in neighborhoods where violence, mayhem, and crime are rampant.

Yet the time has come to end New York's "stop and frisk" policy, as it is an arbitrary and unfair violation of an individual's right to privacy guaranteed by both the American and New York State constitutions.

Furthermore, when these thousands of stops are combined, the disturbing result of stop and frisk is an amassing of the personal information of completely innocent people--mostly people of color--into a database utilized by the NYPD to assist them in identifying "future criminals."

I know some will say this is an off-base accusation on my part. But not only am I speaking from detailed facts, but I am also speaking from personal experience. I too have been stopped and frisked, during my years in New York City, because, as I was told by one police office or another, "I fit a certain description" or "I was dressed the wrong way." Luckily I was never arrested after being stopped and frisked, but the harsh reality is that I could have been, as many are.

And this is simply unacceptable in a nation that proclaims itself to be "post-racial" in the era of President Barack Obama.

But what exactly is "stop and frisk?"

Well, if you are stopped and frisked by the NYPD, your personal information is entered directly into a database for future use. It does not matter whether the officer found a gun on you or drugs of any sort. The officer has a bevy of options from which to choose his or her justification for your stop and frisk, all of which amount to little more than "you looked suspicious." If the officer wants your information entered into the database, he or she will get it entered into the database.

In raw data provided by the Center for Constitutional Rights here in New York, 53,000 White people were stopped and frisked compared to 490,000 Blacks and Latinos. On the other hand, Blacks, Latinos, and Whites had almost exactly the same rate of arrest: six percent, according to a recent New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/13/nyregion/13frisk.html?scp=2&sq=baker%20stop%20frisk%20data&st=cse

That's a stop and frisk rate of more than nine people of color for every one White person. Or, from another perspective, 49,820 innocent White people were entered into the NYPD's database, compared to 460,600 innocent people of color. In 2009. Alone.

Again, let me be perfectly clear. Effective policing is an absolutely critical part of keeping our communities strong and safe. As we have seen in the past right here in New York, a critical aspect of effective policing is a strong relationship between the NYPD and the communities it serves, regardless of the ethnicity, race, or religion of those communities. Not only does a police force interwoven into a community deter crime and provide positive role models for our children, such a force is far more effective at gathering evidence and solving crimes because neighborhoods communicate with police officers they trust. We want and need an effective police force in New York. We want and need a police force we can trust.

For sure, an effective police force is not built by amassing the personal data of one community. The result is mistrust and hatred of a police force that applies those tactics in only some neighborhoods, as we've already seen in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where the NYPD has conducted 52,000 stops in just four years over a few city blocks: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/12/nyregion/12frisk.html?emc=eta1

Yet, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, and others, are pushing Governor Paterson to veto a bill on his desk now that attempts to reign in the NYPD's unfair application of stop and frisk to communities of color:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/03/nyregion/03frisk.html

Advocates for the stop and frisk policy claim that both the procedure and the database are effective tools in helping them make our communities safer. As we've already seen with the data, 94% of the time stop and frisk is wrong, regardless of the racial category of the person involved. That's hardly effective.

But even more disturbing is that our law enforcement believes that by gathering the personal information of every single person they've ever mistakenly stopped and frisked, they are closer to solving future crimes. They must actually believe these innocent citizens are future criminals. And the fact that the overwhelming majority of these citizens come from communities of color suggests a deep, deep rift between our police force (and some of our elected officials) and our communities, and a sincere and mistaken belief held by the NYPD that we who are Black and Latino will be committing 90% of the crimes in the future, based on this database.

However, if the NYPD, again, simply looked at the arrest rate, 6% for Blacks, Latinos and Whites, it would see all it needs to know. We are people with rights. We believe in community. We work hard. We are the same, regardless of background, and all of us deserve basic civil and human rights.

So let us find a way to deal with crime that does not take us back to the days of racial and ethnic segregation in America. That is not the America that elected Barack Obama president. Nor is that the America, or New York City, we need in the 21st century.

Kevin Powell is a 2010 Democratic candidate for the United States House of Representatives, the 10th Congressional District in Brooklyn, New York. He can be reached at www.kevinpowell.net