Voices from Brooklyn: Racial Profiling’s Part of Everyday Life Here

It's not just Arizona. ColorLines speaks with young black men in Brownsville, Brooklyn, about living with NYPD's profiling policy.

By Naima Ramos-Chapman Aug 02, 2010

As progressives unite this summer to fight racial profiling of immigrants in Arizona, a New York Times investigation in July offered a stark reminder of how routine profiling has become in some black neighborhoods around the country. The Times reviewed data on stops over four years in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, a predominantly African American community that’s dense with public housing. Reporters found police made nearly 52,000 stops in an eight-block radius over just four years. Just 1 percent of the stops yielded arrests and cops found only 26 guns. 

ColorLines spent an afternoon last week in Brownsville. We visited the Brownsville Recreation Center to speak with the young men NYPD’s stops have targeted. According to the NYT, cops use expansive authority for investigating trespassing in public housing as a pretext for many stops, often with the explicit goal of boosting stats showing enforcement actions. The Brownsville rec center we visited serves the nearby housing projects, and the young men who come there say stop-and-frisks are now a routine part of their lives. Watch them speak for themselves in the video above, then grab the embed code and pass it along.

New York Gov. David Paterson signed legislation this summer prohibiting the NYPD from keeping names and other information on the people cops stop but don’t arrest or cite. He allowed the stops themselves to continue, however. Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers has introduced the End to Racial Profiling Act. The bill’s not likely to see congressional action soon.

The stop-and-frisk debate is not a new one. Dr. Harry Levine, a Queens College researcher who recently published a study on racial disparities in California’s marijuana-possession arrests, says police departments began using the tactic in the 1990s and it has increased over the years. The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk campaign has garnered lots of attention thanks to criminal justice watchdogs like the NYCLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights. But the city is not alone.

Los Angeles, for example, is another city grappling with a deteriorating relationship between the police and people of color. In a report commissioned by the ACLU of Southern California, called "Racial Profiling & The LAPD: A Study of Racially Disparate Outcomes in the Los Angeles Police Department", blacks were three times as likely to be stopped as whites. As the report explains:

These disparities are not justified by crime rates in different neighborhoods where people of color live. In regressions controlling for both violent and property crime rates in the area where the stops occurred, the stop rates were significantly higher for people of color than for whites. Nor do the disparities arise because more police are assigned to black or Latino neighborhoods. In fact, there was a greater racial disparity in stop rates in predominantly white neighborhoods than predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

"Stop-and-frisk comes out of a Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, which allowed police to do stops and frisks when they had reasonable suspicion that a crime had been or was about to be committed," explains Steven Zeidman, a CUNY School of Law professor and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic. "But now we allow police to stop people on virtually no information whatsoever." "Hunches" and "whims," says Zeidman, should not be enough to employ a stop-and-frisk.

Most academics agree that "Terry" stops, as they are sometimes dubbed, are used in police departments across country. Still, Jeffery Fagan, sociology professor and researcher at Columbia University, stresses that few "use this tactic as extensively as does New York" or with so little respect for the "reasonable suspicion" standard.

Guidelines put in place in 2001 compel the NYPD to report quarterly data to the City Council on who it stops and for what reasons. Those rule sprang from public outrage over police brutality after the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, thouh NYPD has often drug its feet in complying. The data reveals that, since Diallo’s death, the number of stop-and-frisks has in fact gone through the roof–last year a record high of nearly 600,000 people were stopped.

"It’s too easy to say, ‘Well, that’s where crime is,’ " says Fagan of the stops being clumped in black neighborhoods like Brownsville. "Once you consider that the stop and frisks are being conducted on so little actual basis of any criminality, you realize it can happen anywhere."