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Nahal Zamani Headshot

On a Day Against Police Brutality, Let's Talk About Stop-and-Frisk

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Friday, October 22nd marks National Day Against Police Brutality, a day where we raise awareness of police violence, brutality and abuse in this country and call for more humane, fair and effective policing practices.

New York has been the stage for particularly horrendous tragedies of police brutality and abuse, including: the shooting of Amadou Diallo with 41 bullets as he pulled out his wallet to identify himself to the police; the assault and sodomizing of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant in police custody; the sexual assault of a 35-year-old Latina woman who was forced to perform oral sex on officers after being stopped for a traffic violation; the shooting of Sean Bell after his bachelor's party; and the tasing and subsequent death of Iman Morales, who was suffering from a seizure on a fire escape and died after police were called to help him.

Though each incident of brutality sparked outrage in New York and throughout the country, the New York Police Department (NYPD) continues to accelerate its use of controversial practices - to the detriment of the rights, dignity and in some cases, lives, of New Yorkers.

The first interaction most New Yorkers have with the police typically takes place on the street, when they are stopped, questioned and frisked by the NYPD. Stop, question and frisk, as implemented by the NYPD, is an over-used, ineffective and racist law enforcement practice with serious consequences for police-community relations and the rights and safety of law abiding New Yorkers.

The use of stop-and-frisk has expanded exponentially under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. NYPD stop-and-frisk data obtained through court order by the Center for Constitutional Rights shows that the number of New Yorkers stopped and frisked has increased 600 percent in those eight years, from just over 90,000 in 2002 to over 575,000 in 2009, all while crime in the City has gone down slightly or remained flat.

The stop-and-frisk practice is racist. The NYPD data shows that over 80 percent of all stops since 2002 were of Black and Latino New Yorkers, even though they together comprise roughly 50 percent of the City's populations and do not make up anywhere close to 80 percent of the identified suspects in crimes reported to the NYPD. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be frisked after a stop, or have physical forced used against them. Of particular concern are those who are gender non-confirming, are perceived to have particular immigration statuses, are homeless, or have mental illnesses, where the opportunity for intimidation, abuse or sexual assault by the police is compounded.

Stop-and-frisk is ineffective. According to data the City was forced to turn over to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the policing practice yields extremely low rates of weapons or arrests: 1.3 and 6 percent, respectively. There are so many New Yorkers that are found innocent after being stopped and frisked that the Governor recently signed into law an initiative to wipe the personal identifying information of innocent New Yorkers from the database (though the basic information has to remain intact so we can continue to monitor the statistics).

Stop-and-frisk harms the communities of New York and fractures their relations with the police. I recently spoke to teenagers in Harlem who told me how they have persistently been stopped, questioned, searched, harassed, intimidated, disrespected, pushed and yelled at - while standing on the street chatting, as they attempted to eat dinner on a stoop, or while visiting friends. They told me that the constant stopping and questioning by the police led them to mistrust, doubt and fear the NYPD.

Unfortunately, the NYPD feels empowered to continue these disturbing practices by a lack of meaningful monitoring or accountability mechanisms. Secret tapes leaked to the Village Voice have revealed a culture of quotas at the NYPD, yet no action has been taken to investigate the department. The NYPD proudly boycotted recent City Council hearings on the stop-and-frisk, despite presentations that questioned the policy's efficacy. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, which receives complaints from New Yorkers about police misconduct, has limited authority to take action against cops.

Some argue that stop-and-frisk is the main reason crime has gone down in New York City. They insist that the use of the practice should increase in order to continue to lower crime. However, claiming that the two are interconnected misses the clear facts. Stop-and-frisk is ineffective in recovering illegal weapons or uncovering evidence of a crime, is used disproportionately on New Yorkers of color and prevents communities from trusting police.

In light of the Day Against Police Brutality, the NYPD must to take a hard look at its use of stop-and-frisk before any more incidents occur. The police department must enforce reporting requirements, provide more data about stop-and-frisk and similar policing practices, and ensure that stops are based on reasonable suspicion through careful review. The authority and scope of the Civilian Complaint Review Board must also be expanded so it can adequately investigate, prosecute and take disciplinary action against officers who engage in misconduct.

We simply do not have the luxury of waiting for another tragedy.

To read more about the Center's work around stop-and-frisk, visit: