As the class-action lawsuit known as Floyd v. New York begins to wind down after more than 30 days of testimony, citizens throughout New York City are waiting with baited breath for the outcome. It has attracted far fewer headlines in Atlanta, but the final outcome of the case could affect the way police do business in every city in the country, particularly in communities of color where departments could assert the right to search Black and Latino youth simply for being Black and Latino youth.
The plaintiffs in Floyd, known by most as simply the “Stop and Frisk trial,” argue that the NYPD’s policy of stopping people on the street and searching them is nothing more than racial profiling and the raw data behind the case is almost impossible to argue.
Of the 530,000 people stopped and searched in New York in 2012, only 10 percent were white, and 89 percent of the stops did not lead to an arrest or even a citation, according to the police department’s own data. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) studied the data and found that Black and Latino men between the ages of 14 and 24 make up just 4.7 percent of the city’s population but accounted for 41 percent of stop and frisks in 2011.
The city’s stop and frisk program has been in place for years, but under recently retired Police Chief Joseph Esposito, who took over the department’s top post in 2000, the NYPD’s stops have increased by 600 percent.
In spite of massive and ever mounting evidence, the NYPD has insisted that stop and frisk does not constitute racial profiling because it targets communities based on where crimes are happening, not race.
“Who’s doing those shootings?” said Esposito during his testimony in the Floyd trial. “It’s young men of color in their late teens, early 20s.”
NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly took it a step further during a recent interview with ABC’s “Nightline,” saying that, in fact, African Americans aren’t being stopped enough.
“About 70 percent to 75 percent of the people described as committing violent crimes – assault, robbery, shootings, grand larceny – are described as being African-American,” he said. “The percentage of people who are stopped is 53 percent African-American, so really, African Americans are being ‘understopped.'”
Kelly, Esposito and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who are all named as defendants in the Floyd case, have argued that stop and frisk is getting guns off the streets and saving lives in the city, and they’ve got the numbers to back up their position.
From 2000 to 2009 New York’s homicide rate went from 8.9 murders per 100,000 people to 5.8 per 100,000, and in 2012 New York recorded 414 homicides, the city’s lowest murder total since 1963.
In 2011, 770 guns were recovered across the city during frisks. That amounts to a 30 percent increase over 2003, when 594 guns were recovered. Esposito has asserted during the trial that crime in New York is down 40 percent in the last 12 years and 80 percent in the last 20.
Bloomberg has also touted a murder rate that he says has been cut in half since he took over as mayor.
“I think the effectiveness of the program is shown in the fact that under the Bloomberg decade, we’ve had a 51 percent decrease in murders in the city,” he told CBS News in March.
Those results have garnered the begrudging support of people like Rev. Vernon Williams, a 54-year-old Harlem preacher affectionately known as O.G. or Pastor On Deck (P.O.D. for short).
Williams has served as president of the Harlem Clergy Community Leaders Coalition and Perfect Peace Ministries and says he has personally turned in 12 guns to law enforcement and been responsible for a total of 26 firearms being taken off the street as well as two bulletproof vests and an assault rifle.
He admits the policy is not perfect, but in his opinion it’s working.
“There are problems with [stop and frisk],” he says. “I, as a Black man, have definite problems with that, but what you got? You got something better? Because if it gets 1 percent of those guns off the street, OK that’s one gun that’s not gonna kill nobody.”
The revered knows about the streets from his past life. He admits to being a former drug dealer and member of the Black Spades street gang in his youth, which led to 10 years in prison for various crimes. Today he’s known for visiting neighborhood youth at the Ella McQueen Juvenile Detention Center and Rikers Island Correctional Facility to mentor them and try to offer a different path
“Our young people, in the black and the Latino community, are at war,” he says. “That’s the reality. So, uncertain times call for stringent measures.”
Though the Atlanta Police Department is not required to submit records on stops or the people it detains, the arrest record of Blacks in the city speaks to much the same racial divide as New York’s.
A grand total of five white children under age 16 were arrested by the Atlanta Police Department from January to March of this year. During that same period there were 209 arrests of Black children in the same age group. For those over the age of 17, the pattern of arrests follows the same archetype. In the first three months of 2013, APD reported arresting 6,242 Black men and women 17 or older. There were a reported 1,000 Whites arrested during that time – 84 percent less.
The same trend existed throughout 2012. More than six times as many Blacks (28,238) than Whites (4,622) were arrested by APD, according to the department’s publicly accessible arrest files. The statistic is particularly conspicuous considering African Americans make up only 54 percent of the City of Atlanta’s population.
Even though the APD’s manual states, “Officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting [a] particular person detained of criminal activity,” young Black men being stopped for something like “fitting the description” isn’t uncommon, according to some of the city’s activists.
“It is something that police have been doing all the time,” said Mawuli Mel Davis, a criminal defense lawyer who works with young people of color in Atlanta. “They’ve been profiling young African-American and Hispanic males and they have found a way to pull people over and to stop them and to pat them down and try to arrest them and whatnot.”
APD spokesman Carlos A. Campos would not comment on the department’s stance on stop and frisk, but he says that it’s the department’s policy to adhere to the code of the police handbook, which state that officers may stop or detain an individual only when “they have articulable facts that lead them to believe criminal activity is occurring.”
While individuals in New York City are assumed to have the same protections, under stop and frisk that has not been the case. Walking down the street has become reasonable suspicion for anyone with black or brown skin in the city. Whistleblowers from within the NYPD have even come forward to detail the racism inherent in the policy.
“I was extremely bothered with what I was seeing out there,” testified Officer Adhyl Polanco. “The racial profiling, the arresting people for no reason, being called to scenes that I did not observe a violation and being forced to write a summons that I didn’t observe.”
Polanco and officers Adrian Schoolcraft and Pedro Serrano are all witnesses for the plaintiffs in the Floyd lawsuit.
Residents of New York City interviewed by the Daily World almost unanimously told the same story.
“Pretty much about 100 percent of my kids have been stopped and frisked, both boys and girls” says Sarah Moore, a teacher at New York’s Bronx Guild High School. “The vast majority have just [said], I was walking in the subway or I was visiting my grandmother in her building.”
Moore teaches in the same Bronx neighborhood where Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man, was shot at 41 times by police officers in front of his apartment building and killed. It’s an area that is home to towering housing projects like Carol Gardens and the James Monroe Houses.
“I feel like when the cops are around, something’s gonna happen,” says Angel Cora, a 17 year old student in Moore’s class. “When I walk by myself, it’s happened once, but when I’m in a group cops always slow down their car or they’ll actually come out the car and question us.”
Over and over and over, residents of communities like Soundview – from East Flatbush, Brownsville and Cypress Hills in Brooklyn to Hunts Point in The Bronx to the Drew Hamilton and Harlem River Houses and Polo Grounds Towers in Harlem – echoed that story, saying that they have been stopped and frisked for doing nothing more than standing or sitting outside their homes. It happens, most say, on a regular basis.
“The public, the media, the NYPD itself makes it feel like it’s plausible, like you have to take it, you have to accept it,” says Michael Boone, who lives near the Drew Hamilton Housing projects in Harlem. “A lot of people in this community don’t like to speak out for their rights because they’re so scared, because police make you do that, they make you feel scared. It’s not even about protecting the innocent anymore. They’re making everybody feel like they’re a target or a suspect. I can say people are kind of used to it but they’re not happy with it.”
While it’s hardly an apples to apples comparison, reductions in crime surpassing those seen in New York were recorded in Atlanta during the same period without the stop and frisk policy.
Between 2001 and 2009 the crime rate in Atlanta dropped by 40 percent, homicide fell 57 percent, and violent rapes were down 72 percent. Violence overall decreased 55 percent, according to the FBI. Atlanta’s improvement even surpassed the national trend.
There’s also an unquantifiable byproduct of enhanced policing techniques like stop and frisk.
“When it first started happening, I used to get mad,” says Cora. “Like, why? Cause I’m dressing a certain way or something? But then I just learned to get used to it. It don’t bother me no more.”
The ubiquity of police and the frequency of the stops have seemed to create a dispirited acquiescence among teenagers like Cora. But is that what New York City wants or exactly what it should be afraid of?
“A whole generation of young people are growing up believing that society believes they’re criminals,” says Moore, “and that’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”