In 2008 the NYPD set a new record with 531,159 stop-and-frisks. During the first three months of 2009 they were on pace to shatter that record, performing 170,000 stop-and-frisks. This was happening even as the news media was focused on the arrest of Professor Gates. The reactions of many Americans to President Obama's comments have shown a great degree of misunderstanding about the racial overtones that still exist between the police and communities of color. The President expressed his hope that this incident could prove "a teachable moment." I hope so too. And I strongly feel that if we are to learn anything about the realities of racial profiling, we should look no further than street corners in our black and Latino neighborhoods, where law-abiding individuals are constantly stopped and searched in the streets by police officers.
While the arbitrariness of these stop-and-frisks is shocking, the statistics are not. They demonstrate that race is an almost exclusive factor. They also demonstrate that there is no probable cause or reasonable suspicion. 89% of the 170,000 stops resulted in neither an arrest nor a summons. Clearly there was no reason to suspect these individuals were committing any crime other than the color of their skin and the neighborhood they happened to be walking in. This is discrimination, and it violates the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. And what's more is that they simply don't serve a viable public safety purpose. It is not smart law enforcement policy to violate innocent people's rights. The only reason to search someone would be if they fit the description of a suspected perpetrator of an actual crime. And "fitting the description" can't just rely on the factor of race; age, height, weight, dress and other distinguishing characteristics must also be considered.
Arresting individuals in possession of small quantities of marijuana appears to be a motivating factor behind many stop-and-frisks. Given that the Police Department is expending so much energy on non-violent crime, perhaps we need to rethink our policies regarding marijuana on the local and national level, and certainly halt the increasing rate of prosecutions for small quantities of marijuana possession, with its predictably disproportionate impact on young men of color.
The stop-and-frisk issue is a keen example of why New York City needs an activist Public Advocate. Police-community relations would be a central focus of a Siegel Public Advocate office. While I was Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, I was one of the authors of legislation creating the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board, put in place in July 1993 to monitor police conduct. Unfortunately the CCRB does not have the standing to seriously address the stop-and-frisk problem. Its substantiation rate is way too low and the trust of the community is waning. As Public Advocate I would hold the CCRB accountable, recommending specific deadlines for action on complaints. And the lawyers who prosecute these cases should not be lawyers who work for the Police Department. Moreover, in major cases involving allegations of police misconduct, New York State should have an independent statewide prosecutor with jurisdiction over brutality and corruption, which I called for in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting and verdict.
Even if the CCRB is strengthened, the Public Advocate must also provide oversight. I would appoint a Deputy Public Advocate to deal specifically with equality issues as they relate to race, gender, sexual orientation, age, income and disability. I would hold town-hall meetings to educate people about what their rights are when they are stopped by the police. I would speak out against stop-and-frisks, publicly criticize them, and do whatever I can to ameliorate the situation. If necessary, we would go to court to enjoin the NYPD against continuing the practice.
Former Mayor Giuliani was recently quoted in response to President Obama's statement on the arrest of Professor Gates: "He's actually right. It is teachable. Here's the lesson: Shut up." The former Mayor is dead wrong on this issue, and the callousness of his statement is symptomatic of his policies that still haunt community-police relations in this city. I'd like to broadcast a different message, which I hope to make the message of the New York City Public Advocate's office: We will not shut up. We will not continue to ignore the racial profiling and stop-and-frisk tactics that are consuming the energy of our police officers. Stop-and-frisks are disrespectful, they are unconstitutional, and they need to stop, because they result in exacerbating already too-high tensions between the police and African-American and Latino communities, without serving an overriding valid public purpose.
Norman Siegel is a candidate for NYC Public Advocate. Visit his website for more information.