THE BLOG

Stop and Frisk Never Stopped

08/16/2014 12:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2014
Hill Street Studios via Getty Images

While the nation reels from the shooting death of Michael Brown and the war-zone response by the Missouri police, and while New York City reels from our own recent police homicide -- the suffocation of Eric Garner last month by several NYPD officers -- it might behoove us to ask how has policing in New York actually changed during the first six months of Mayor Bill de Blasio's tenure?

Known for his strong denunciations of aggressive police practices, de Blasio was elected on a wave of anti-stop and frisk sentiment, powerfully fanned by last summer's Federal District Court ruling that found systematic racial bias in NYPD stops of nearly 5 million New Yorkers. Yet, upon taking office, de Blasio hired back ex-Mayor Giuliani's police commander Bill Bratton, and began to vociferously endorse Giuliani's philosophy of "Broken Windows" policing.

The devil may be in the details, but an initial look at the most recent statistics exposes an unforgiving truth: stop and frisk has hardly stopped.

We know this from two data points:

(1) The number of arrests for low-level marijuana possession has continued apace, and even risen slightly, in the first six months of de Blasio's term. Since 1977, possession of 25 grams of marijuana has been decriminalized in New York State. However, displaying marijuana in "public view" is still a misdemeanor offense.

In New York City, a staggering number of these arrests result when police officers order stopped individuals to empty their pockets. The marijuana then comes into "public view" and the individuals are arrested. Since such arrests are predicated upon stops, we can infer from their unaltered numbers that police stops are continuing at levels similar to those under the Bloomberg administration. Simply they are not being recorded.

(2) Misdemeanor arrests are currently higher under de Blasio than they were under Bloomberg, with racial disparities holding steady. Eighty-six percent of the 97,487 people arrested for misdemeanor offenses during de Blasio's first six months were Black or Hispanic.

There is a direct flow-through from the number of stops to the number of summons and arrests. If you only stop individuals of color, and 87 percent of stops under Bloomberg (and now de Blasio) were of Blacks and Latinos, then you can expect that arrest numbers will manifest a similar racial divide.

Racial disparities in summonses and misdemeanor arrests are not a consequence of real disparities in rates of criminal behavior. Rather they are a result of where the government elects to concentrate its policing power.

For instance, between 2008 to 2011, the police issued an average of eight bicycle-on-the-sidewalk summonses a year in Park Slope, Brooklyn. For the same period for these kinds of summonses, the annual average in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was 2,050. Now who is going to believe that the sidewalks of Bed-Stuy are swamped with cyclists, while the sidewalks of Park Slope are pedestrian-safe?

Indeed, the connection between making tremendous numbers of stops and reducing criminal violence was always tenuous. In the same way, even a neophyte criminologist knows that the people who ride bikes on the sidewalk and drink beer in the park are an entirely different population from those who murder, maim and rob.

Given its ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent, "Broken Windows" policing, like stop and frisk before it, appears to have no other purpose than social control. It encourages officers to enforce "rules of etiquette" against disfavored communities; rules which almost never apply to the good-mannered folks who reside in high-income communities.

This is why a shocking number of individuals whom I interviewed for my documentary STOP, reported receiving summons for "unnecessary noise." They all happen to be young black men who were "talking too loud" in the wrong neighborhood. Yet, when packs of frat-boys caterwaul their way down Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village, as they do every weekend night, well that's just good ol' college fun.

The odious suppositions that underlie "Broken Windows" not only caricature people of color as rambunctious troublemakers -- who require persistent police surveillance -- they also brand them as volatile instigators of violence. At the edges of stop and frisk and "Broken Windows," we thus encounter again and again (and again) the Eric Garners, the Ramarley Grahams, the Michael Browns.

Their deaths are the entirely predictable consequences of these policies; policies engendered by a society in which the police unashamedly blame young black men for violence while continuing to commit unspeakable acts of violence against young black men.

Just before he died, Eric Garner said these words: "Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today! I'm minding my business, please just leave me alone."

The real consequence of "Broken Windows" for citizens of color is iterative and impertinent police meddling in their daily lives. Garner was sick of being hassled. He made a plea for autonomy and dignity, and he was met with murderous violence.

Anyone who has ever been bullied or harassed knew what Eric Garner felt that day.

Unfortunately, his experience has been shared by millions of New Yorkers over the past decade. Stop and frisk and now (once again) "Broken Windows" is a license to bully. The people of this city elected Bill de Blasio to stop these invidious tactics.

But it hasn't stopped. It's not stopping. Let's make it stop.