New York City Council member Deborah Rose adjourned a three-and-a-half-hour evening hearing on stop-and-frisk with a word of advice:
“Be safe traveling home,” she said. “Avoid the police.”
There seemed little else to say, now that Rose and the packed room of hearing attendees had heard nearly thirty testimonies of abuse and harassment at the hands of the New York City Police Department.
Among others, Rose heard from a Bangladeshi teenager who was patted down by two male police officers looking for marijuana on her way to school, a mother who was beaten by police in front of her home for having a closed bottle of alcohol, and a civil rights activist who was thrown against a wall and frisked during an afternoon smoke break outside his Manhattan office.
The city council hearings in Brooklyn and Queens last week provided a forum for roughly sixty community members to share their stories and speak out on stop-and-frisk. Between the two hearings, all but one of the testimonies offered emphatically opposed the practice. Many who spoke called for support of the Community Safety Act, legislation that would increase oversight of a police department now operating with near complete autonomy.
Momentum has been building in the community effort against stop and frisk. On October 22, activists gathered for the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, many marching in memory of those killed by police shootings. As city council considers the Community Safety Act, organizers have been increasing pressure on local legislators to address the current impunity of the NYPD.
The City Council’s public safety committee first held a hearing on the Community Safety Act in Manhattan at 10am on Wednesday, October 10, but few from the communities most impacted by stop-and-frisk were able to attend. “Their voice needed to be a part of the record,” said council member Rose. “We are hearing from the so-called experts, but we haven’t had the personal testimonials.” The hearings were the first opportunity many community members had to share with city officials their stories of mistreatment by the NYPD.
Fifteen-year-old Ceiro De Jesus from the Bronx was one of the youngest to speak in Brooklyn. He and a group of friends were playing football at a neighborhood park on a Saturday afternoon, when two white police officers parked next to the field and ordered them to put their hands up.
When De Jesus asked why they were being frisked, the cop answered, “Because you’re young, out of control and colored…. now get your ass home before you learn how it is to be in jail.”
De Jesus told his mother, but her advice was the same as council member Rose’s: watch out for cops. He and his friends have stopped going to the park, and mostly stay indoors. “Ever since that day, I feel like I have no freedom,” he said.
Several former NYPD officers also spoke out against the number-driven system pushing police to make random stops. “Our community is under siege,” said retired officer Howard Henderson in Queens. “There is profiling… and there [are] quotas…. In this community, there’s a quota of one arrest and thirty summons in a month…. Certain communities [in] the city do not have quotas. In these communities, the minority communities, they definitely do.”
Missing from both the Brooklyn and Queens hearings were representatives of the Mayor’s office or the NYPD. (Bloomberg sent his lawyer Michael Best to attend the October 10 hearing, but NYPD has not had an official representative at any of the stop-and-frisk hearings.) Both Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley have been highly defensive about the program. While they admit that individual abuses of power need to be addressed, they continue to claim that the tactic at its core is making New York City streets safer. They have repeatedly claimed that gun violence has decreased as a result, though a gun was recovered in roughly .001 percent of the 685,724 stops conducted in 2011.
“They keep bringing up [gun violence] as if we weren’t painfully aware of this issue.
Nobody wants that violence to go down more than the people who live in those communities,” said council member Jumaane Williams, co-chair of the city council Task Force to Combat Gun Violence. Williams left partway through the Brooklyn hearing to attend a vigil for recent shooting victim Christopher Braham. “We’re not for no policing, we’re for better policing. Stop, Question and Frisk…has been ineffective in lowering shootings. They’re wedded to a policy that does not work.”
The mayor’s office and the police department have also been outspoken in their opposition to the four bills that comprise the Community Safety Act. In a recent op-ed for the New York Post titled “Heads in the Sand: City Council’s Anti-Cop Bills,” Commissioner Kelley wrote, “Police officers must not be prevented from carrying out their core law-enforcement mission just because their critics cry bias.” (The article features a picture of a black police officer respectfully patting down a white male.)
The proposed legislation would prohibit officers from using racial profiling as a police tactic, and make them accountable for policies that have a disproportionate racial impact, such as stop-and-frisk. It also broadens the ban on profiling to include targeting individuals based on ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and housing and immigration status. During a stop, officers would have to identify themselves and cite a reason for the stop. Though NYPD would still be allowed to perform pat-downs, they would have to explain the individual’s right to refuse a search of their pockets and belongings without a warrant.
Most importantly, Bill 881 of the act calls for the creation of an Inspector General’s office to perform routine reviews of NYPD policies. “The number of New Yorkers who believe the problem is a systemic lack of oversight leading to a culture with no accountability is growing,” said council member Brad Lander, a vocal supporter of the act. The FBI, CIA and police departments in Los Angeles, Chicago and DC all have independent oversight. The NYPD is one of the few city departments not subject to such review.
It is not just black and Latino communities calling for the passage of protections that heighten police accountability. Several activists also testified on the need for deeper investigation into the department’s anti-terrorism efforts, which regularly sends informants into Muslim neighborhoods. “We’re not being thrown up against walls, we’re being spied on,” said Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association in New York. Recognizing the links between stop-and-frisk and police surveillance, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition has joined with Communities United for Police Reform to advocate for the new legislation. “At the end of the day, it’s about discriminatory policies of the NYPD. The more communities involved the more effective we will be at reforming it,” she said.
LGBT activists have also been vocal opponents of stop-and-frisk, saying they too are frequently victim to arbitrary searches and verbal abuse by New York police. The Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign and other national gay rights organizations have decried the program’s violation of civil liberties, and joined in a march against police profiling this June.
Divax Mendez, a transgender Latino woman, testified in Queens that she was arrested for prostitution after police stopped her walking down the street and found a few condoms on her person. Others shared stories of being frisked after leaving gay nightclubs; one person shared a story of a friend being called “an AIDS-infected faggot” by police. A recent study released by immigrant rights organization Make the Road found that 54 percent of LGBT respondents had been stopped by NYPD. Of those stopped, over half were verbally or physically abused. The numbers were even higher for transgender respondents.
Without legislative safeguards in place, organizers have sought other means of protection. David Galarza, the activist who recorded a teen being bodyslammed by an officer on a Sunset Park subway platform, called for community members to engage in “Cop Watch” by taping officers performing a stop-and-frisk. “Police work for us, they should know that we’re always watching them,” he said, noting that his church had started distributing cameras to members of its congregation.
At both hearings, José LaSalle played an audio recording of a stop-and-frisk encounter obtained by TheNation.com, in which his stepson was called a “mutt.” Activists pointed to the recording and Galarza’s video as examples of the proof needed to hold cops accountable.
An activist with the Malcom X Grassroots Movement said the need for Cop Watch is urgent, as many might be stopped as they traveled home from the hearing. “While we wait for these policies to pass, we need to protect ourselves right now,” she said.
The Malcom X Grassroots Movement as well as Communities United for Police Reform and other organizations have held Know Your Rights workshops, and distributed literature on how to proceed if stopped by police. Many community members, especially youth, don’t know that though cops can legally frisk them, they don’t have to consent to a search of their clothes or belongings without probable cause. Contained in the Community Safety Act is a proposal that officers would have to inform individuals of this right before proceeding with a search.
Some expressed skepticism that the Community Safety Act would truly address such deep-seated problems in the NYPD. The legislation has its limitations: Mayor Bloomberg would get to appoint the Inspector General, and have the right to fire them at any time. “I just don’t know how much to hope from the City Council being able to address the systematic white supremacy of the NYPD,” said Stop Stop-And-Frisk activist Jodi Nicole.
Even at 15, De Jesus is doubtful of the capacity for change. “I honestly don’t think anything is going to be fixed,” he said. “Most of the time, things just get worse.”
But activists like Sarsour say the Community Safety Act is just one step toward increasing police accountability and bringing an end to racial profiling. “We’re talking about zero oversight of the NYPD, and I would for now settle for some oversight,” she said. “While the NYPD’s watching us, who’s watching the NYPD?”
Watch the video below for exclusive video of a stop-and-frisk carried out by the New York Police Department.