New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, gestures while responding to questions during a news conference Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg rightly and forcefully condemned the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida that encouraged self-appointed crime-stopper George Zimmerman to shoot first and ask questions later. But there was another dynamic at play that night in Sanford—namely, the presumption that young men of color are potential criminals who can be stopped in their tracks, no matter what they are doing.
New York is not Sanford, of course, and there is a world of difference between the vigilantism of George Zimmerman and the professional policing of the nation’s biggest city. But we can no longer stand by while innocent young men of color are stopped for the crime of walking home or going to the store.
On Tuesday, April 24, I will proudly stand with Martin Luther King III, who is coming to New York City to talk about justice and civil rights in the age of stop-and-frisk. Last year, the NYPD made over 680,000 stops—an increase of over 600 percent since 2002. Eighty-seven percent of those stopped were black or Latino, in a city where those groups comprise 54 percent of the population. And in 99.9 percent of those stops, no gun was recovered.
The younger King’s visit comes forty-five years after his father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., took to the pulpit at Riverside Church in Manhattan and declared, “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” and that “the fierce urgency of now” required all Americans to demand an end to the Vietnam War.
The moral challenge we confront in New York City today has changed, but Dr. King’s words continue to ring true. As currently practiced, stop-and-frisk represents a continuation of separate and unequal policing on the streets of New York—an affront to Dr. King’s legacy and a continued impediment to effective policing in America’s largest city.
Of course, the sacrifices of our women and men of the NYPD cannot be understated. In the past two decades, crime rates have plunged, contributing to a rebirth in the city’s economy and attracting a million more people to the five boroughs. This trend has continued under Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. But the dramatic growth in stop-and-frisk numbers has cast a troubling shadow on these statistics.
During a recent City Council hearing that discussed alternatives to stop-and-frisk, Commissioner Kelly said: “What I haven’t heard is any solution to the violence problems in these communities—people are upset about being stopped, yet what is the answer?”
In fact, there are many good answers to that question, and many proven policing strategies that work with communities, not against them, to reduce gun violence.
But first, some background.
The use of street stops by police is not new, and when constitutionally deployed, they can be a critical public safety tool. The Supreme Court first outlined the legal justification for street stops in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio, holding that the Fourth Amendment permits police to stop an individual on the street if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime and that he or she "may be armed and presently dangerous."