Unstoppable Oppression: NYC Police Stops Point to Institutional Racism

By Michelle Chen Feb 18, 2010

You may not think of New York City police as a particularly touchy-feely bunch (particularly in light of the latest twist in the case of police-shooting victim Sean Bell). But New Yorkers could tell you some stories about the cops getting a little too close for comfort–about 575,000 stories, in fact. The Center for Constitutional Rights has issued a disturbing update to its analysis of police data on stops and searches. Since the city has begun publicly disclosing its stop and frisk data (a concession it grudgingly made in response to litigation), advocates have uncovered massive racial disparities in the frequency and the nature of these encounters, confirming perceptions of the NYPD as menacing presence in communities of color. 2009 saw an intensification in the disproportionate targeting of Blacks and Latinos compared with whites. The Center reports, "In 2009, a record 575,304 people were stopped, 87 percent of whom were Black and Hispanic, while from 2005 to 2008, approximately 80 percent of total stops made were of Blacks and Latinos, who comprise approximately 25 percent and 28 percent of New York City’s total population, respectively." The Center’s previous research on about 1.6 million stop-and-frisk encounters since 2005 shows that the disparate impact on Blacks and Latinos has virtually no justification on a purely law-enforcement basis. Rates of actual arrest or issuing summonses are uniformly low across all racial groups. And if you want to get technical about it, "stops made of Whites prove to be slightly more likely to yield contraband," meaning that white New Yorkers are statistically a little more prone to be caught carrying something illegal. So much for finding the needle in the racist haystack. Nor do the stated reasons for the police interventions augur well for civil rights:

[T]he data from the first three quarters of 2009 (fourth quarter detail unavailable at this time) reveal that “fits relevant description” is the reason for a stop only 15 percent of the time. Far and away the most often cited reason for a stop by the police is the vague and undefined, “furtive movements” (nearly 50 percent of all stops), and “casing a victim or location” (nearly 30 percent of all stops). Also listed are “inappropriate attire for season,” “wearing clothes commonly used in a crime,” and “suspicious bulge,” among other boxes an officer can check off on the form.

The most arresting finding–one that has no doubt given people of color more of a reason to think twice before taking a walk in their own neighborhoods–is the confluence of physical coercion and racial hierarchy in a typical stop-and-frisk encounter: "Between 2005 and June 2008, 17 percent of Whites, compared to 24 percent of Latinos and Blacks, had physical force used against them during NYPD-initiated encounters." Of course, we don’t know exactly what other social or political dynamics were at play in those encounters, what split-second calculations sparked a violent reaction. But we do know that this interaction–having your life momentarily disrupted by an armed officer with the power to act as judge, jury and executioner in the space of a few seconds–has happened hundreds of thousands of times over the past year. And we know that when the numbers are this stark, the seige of Black and Latino communities can’t be explained away by just citing chance or the interests of public safety. Not that this has stopped the NYPD from trying. Last May, following the release of data showing an upward trend in police stops and frisks, Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne argued, "In a city where police make 400,000 arrests annually based on the higher standard of probable cause, 500,000 stops annually is not unreasonable." The NYPD also defended its collection of personal data about people caught in the stop-and-frisk dragnet, calling the database "a valuable investigative tool," according to the NY Daily News. Of course it makes sense for the police to indiscriminately amass data on the people they stop, since they have an interest in perpetuating the belief that Blacks and Latinos are more deserving than others of scrutiny and harassment. Civil liberties advocates are using data as an investigative tool as well, to probe the dimensions of racism behind the blue wall of silence. Activists are pressing for greater civilian oversight of police activities, more data disclosure, and independent mechanisms for addressing police abuse and misconduct. The NYPD tends to resist reform until a public relations crisis hits, but then again, we may not have to wait very long before we see a replay of the grim drama surrounding Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, or Omar Edwards. When the next tragedy hits, will New Yorkers react with more outrage, or weary resignation toward the police oppression stubbornly ingrained in the city’s social fabric? An inappropriate police stop may feel like a nuisance on an individual basis, but when multiplied thousands of times, it adds up to a collective sense of utter powerlessness. While communities of color wait for the next scandal to erupt, their defenses are quietly being worn down every day in the low-grade warfare waged on their neighborhoods. Image: CrownHeights.info