Beyond Stop-and-Frisk: Toward Policing That Works

Beyond Stop-and-Frisk: Toward Policing That Works

Beyond Stop-and-Frisk: Toward Policing That Works

The death of Trayvon Martin reveals the cost of criminalizing young men of color. Enough is enough.


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."

In the years since Terry, most cities have added street stops to their arsenal of crime-fighting weapons. But no city has used street stops with such frequency as New York

The fruits of this New York City dragnet would be dismissed as an abject failure if applied to any other government initiative: in 94 percent of stops, no arrest is made.

The policy as practiced in New York is also riddled with racial profiling. As the New York Times editorialized last year, the numbers suggest that “hundreds of thousands of people, mostly minorities, have been stopped for no legitimate reason—or worse, because of the color of their skin.”

As a result, in today’s New York, white parents and parents of color have completely different conversations with their children about the police. White children are taught early that if they are lost or in trouble, they should find a police officer. In black and Latino families, the conversation has become one of extreme caution, if not outright fear, of keeping a bad situation from getting worse. 

I have seen firsthand evidence of this during recent Sunday visits to black churches. In some cases, mothers bring their sons with them and they speak angrily—despairingly—about police stops that humiliated their children for no good reason. Stop-and-frisk is not reaping guns but rather a deep layer of distrust between police and communities of color. And that makes solving crime harder, not easier.

There are better ways to keep our neighborhoods safe and our city united, starting with the groundbreaking community-oriented reforms pioneered by John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor David Kennedy, the author most recently of the acclaimed Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.

Armed with the knowledge that a small number of criminals commit the majority of violent crimes in any neighborhood, Kennedy devised a system—the “call-in” approach—where gang members, drug dealers and other “bad actors” are summoned to a meeting with law enforcement, clergy, community leaders and social services organizations.

At that meeting, what Kennedy calls “the moral voice of the community”—local parents who have lost children to gun violence, ex-offenders who have gone straight and faith leaders—sets an unmistakable community standard against violence. Individuals are given a choice—either stop committing violent crimes now, or watch as we arrest not just you but every member of your crew. In addition to people who can help off them get their lives back on track, law enforcement is there, promising a greatly elevated risk of serious penalties for committing violent crimes.

It is a multi-pronged, multi-agency approach designed to stop the cycle of violence in a community, to give young people a second chance, to build bridges. It rests, crucially, on demonstrating that law enforcement respects the difference between the violent few and everybody else in a neighborhood.

In Hempstead, Long Island, the approach shut a raging open-air drug market dating back to the early 1980s. Not only did violent crime plummet, drug arrests dropped from around 124 a year to sixteen.

In Chicago, Yale Law School Professsor Tracey Meares used the same approach to target high-risk parolees in two violence-soaked police districts. Recidivism plummeted, while homicide in the neighborhoods dropped almost 40 percent per month. In Boston, call-ins became an integral part of Operation Ceasefire, which drove down youth homicide 63 percent in two years.

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown of the Union Baptist Church in Boston, who has been on the front lines of gang violence in that city for years, told my office of Operation Ceasefire: “The reason it works is because the community takes an active part in the strategy. They are involved with law enforcement as partners.”

Relationships of trust, instead of suspicion, are forged. Community members are no longer passive observers; they are active participants in helping to combat crime. The police are viewed as protectors and partners.

Strategies like the call-in approach instill a sense of legitimacy in law enforcement, or what experts like Tom Tyler at New York University School of Law call procedural justice. If people think they are getting a fair shake and being treated with respect—even if the outcome is not necessarily good for them—they are more likely to respect authority. And when people respect authority and believe the police are there to help, all of us are safer.

In recent years, more than fifty jurisdictions have used Kennedy’s approach, forming the National Network for Safe Communities. New York should be one of them.

Piloting the call-in approach is just one of many reforms the NYPD should employ. In addition, the Department should use CompStat—its data-driven accountability model credited with contributing to steep declines in crime—to hold precinct commanders accountable for high numbers of suspicion-less stops. Instead of lauding commanders for high numbers of stops regardless of their efficacy, the NYPD should focus on the “hit rate” of stops that actually recover weapons to ensure that they are being constitutionally deployed.

Gun buy-back programs also remain an effective tool. Working with clergy throughout the city, NYPD buy-back programs have taken over 7,600 weapons off the streets since 2008. One buy-back held in Brooklyn last year netted 182 weapons, including fifty-eight semi-automatic handguns, one sawed-off shotgun, two assault rifles and seven loaded weapons. That’s more than 20 percent of the guns brought in by stop-and-frisk last year, or the equivalent yield of about 150,000 stops.

All of these strategies will make the NYPD tougher on crime by being smarter on crime.

If Dr. King’s “Dream” was to be judged by the content of your character rather than the color of your skin, the sad truth is that too many young men of color in New York and beyond continue to live a nightmare, never knowing whether a simple trip to the corner store will lead to an encounter with the police.

Today, we cannot afford to wait any longer for reform while thousands among us suffer suspicion-less stops. We should not wait for the next Trayvon Martin.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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