Today’s NY Times features a disturbing, if unsurprising investigation into the New York Police Department’s ongoing stop-and-frisk campaign in Brooklyn. It’s a reminder of just how badly the relationship between law enforcement and community has corroded in too many Black neighborhoods. And it ought to serve as a reminder to advocates of reform everywhere that the sort of racial profiling we’re concerned about happening in places like Arizona remains a routine part of life for young Black men.
The NYT dug into stats for police stops in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has one of the most dense concentrations of public housing in the nation. The Times analysis found that cops in the precinct are using the broad authority they get in policing public housing to stop tens of thousands of people and collect their names, rarely leading to an arrest or confirming the commission of any crime.
Between January 2006 and March 2010, the police made nearly 52,000 stops on these blocks and in these buildings, according to a New York Times analysis of data provided by the Police Department and two organizations, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union. In each of those encounters, officers logged the names of those stopped — whether they were arrested or not — into a police database that the police say is valuable in helping solve future crimes.
These encounters amounted to nearly one stop a year for every one of the 14,000 residents of these blocks.
New York has in recent years seen remarkably low crime rates, and particularly violent crime. Brownsville and a handful of other Black and poor Brooklyn neighborhoods have seen similarly vast improvements from the bad old days of open drug warfare, but they’ve not improved nearly as much as the rest of the city. So NYPD has targeted those neighborhoods (as well as my own, Bedford Stuyvesant) as “impact zones,” which the force floods with hundreds of rookie cops.
This sets up a complicated relationship with community, as Katti Gray reported for ColorLines this spring. Residents generally approve of more police presence, but not of the blunt, everybody-is-a-criminal approach cops use. The thousands of stop-and-frisks NYPD logs are nominally in search of guns, but as the NYT article reports, cops have found a lousy 26 guns in the course of more than 50,000 stops. And just 1 percent of those stops have ended in arrests. If nothing else, this seems a massive waste of taxpayer money.
The NYT identifies NYPD’s stat obsession as a key driver of the stops. Commanders want rookies to post arrests, but short of that they want to show something—so why not rack up some stop-and-frisks? Especially since laws written to make arrests easy in public housing make stat-driven harassment even easier. For instance, being in public housing without proof you live there there is trespassing. So cops looking for stop-and-frisk numbers just hang out in the lobby and write up anyone who comes in without a key. As the NYT reports:
Some former officers who worked the area say the stops seem less geared to bringing down crime than feeding the department’s appetite for numbers — a charge police officials steadfastly deny. Though none said they were ever given quotas to hit, all but two said that certain performance measures were implicitly expected in their monthly activity reports. Lots of stop-and-frisk reports suggested a vigilant officer.
“When I was there the floor number was 10 a month,” one officer said. Like many of the officers interviewed for this article, he asked not to be identified because he was still in law enforcement and worried that being seen as critical of the New York department could hurt his future employment opportunities.
He said if you produced 10 stops — known as a UF-250 for the standardized departmental reports the stops generate — you were not likely to draw the attention of a supervisor. “And in all fairness,” he said, “if you’re working in that area, 10 a month is very low. All you have to do is open your eyes.”
Ryan Sheridan, one of the former officers who said he had never heard supervisors emphasize numbers, nonetheless acknowledged that the lobby and hallways were a legitimate source of 250s.“Once they walk into the building, every UF-250 can come from a do-not-enter, meaning entering without a key,” he said. “But once you ask them for an ID, 90 percent of the people live in the building. That’s why the arrest rate is so low. They’re not acting suspiciously, but like I said, they don’t have a key to enter.”
I’ve reported on policing and crime in Brownsville, and what’s striking is how this harassment impacts the lives of the young people it targets. Teenagers have scores of interactions with cops for stuff that would never involve law enforcement in white neighborhoods. And the blunt, aggressive approach to policing throws everything out of perspective. Shoving matches become rioting charges. Hanging around outside on a hot day becomes “gang activity.” And reaching for your phone while laying face down on a subway platform becomes grabbing for a gun.
Photo: Creative Commons/uberzombie