'Stop and Frisk' May Be Working—But Is It Racist?

New York's policy might indeed be reducing gun violence. But residents aren't sure it's worth the cost.

stop-frisk-top.jpgA protester holds an anti-Stop and Frisk rally in June. (Reuters)

"I just got stopped like two blocks ago," said a frustrated Harlem teenager to the two police officers who approached him.

This is the first recorded audio of a New York City "stop and frisk" recorded surreptitiously by a 16-year-old brown-skinned high schooler identified only as "Alvin." Soon after, the encounter escalates into shouting.

"Why are you carrying an empty book bag?" the police ask Alvin.

"Because I had my hoodie in there. It was cold."

"You want me to smack you?"

"Why you gonna smack me?"

"Who the fuck do you think you're talking to? Shut your fucking mouth."

Quick clicks of tightening handcuffs are heard on the recording as Alvin frantically asks, "What am I getting arrested for?"

One of the policemen responds, "For being a fucking mutt."

"That's against the law, being a mutt?" Alvin asks.

"I will break your fucking arm off right now," the policeman answers.

The recording, which surfaced earlier this year on The Nation's website, enraged civil rights activists already demanding the overhaul of Stop and Frisk, a New York City Police Department program that has led to the stops and searches hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom are black or Latino, every year.

More on Search and Seizure

A contentious political issue, Stop and Frisk has been criticized for its targeting of minority communities. Seemingly every young black or Latino male resident of the city has his own story of being harassed by a police officer for reasons unknown or unjust. The wide net of Stop and Frisk has ensnared bankers and schoolteachers. On the other side, the program has also been praised for taking drug dealers and illegal guns off the street and dramatically lowering the city's murder rate.

While its supporters and detractors are quick to offer evidence that, respectively, validates the program's success or damns its racism, at the heart of the controversy is an interpretation of the 4th Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches. What constitutes an unreasonable search? Some constitutional experts say it's an overreliance on race to determine suspicion. With a federal judge set to rule on New York's Stop and Frisk policy on March 18, these questions of constitutionality will determine the program's future.

Introduced by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Stop and Frisk was a response to the city's crime rates in the 1980s and early 90s, when murder levels were among the highest in the country. The program's goal is to prevent crime before it occurs by stopping and sometimes searching persons suspected of being on the verge of committing a criminal act. Seizing illegal guns is a top program priority. By increasing the number of suspected criminals searched in high crime areas, Stop and Frisk aims to reduce violence by arresting those illegally carrying guns and deterring would-be criminals from carrying them in the first place.

Under current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the program has expanded significantly, stopping six times as many New Yorkers in 2011 as in 2001. Overwhelmingly most of those stopped have been black or Latino. For detractors of the program, the Nation recording confirmed their primary complaint: As practiced by the NYPD, Stop and Frisk can veer into racism, targeting innocent Latino and black men for no reason other than their skin color.


The first time Riko Guzman was frisked by the NYPD was in front of his own home. He was sitting on his stoop in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx when a police car carrying three officers pulled up in front of him. As they exited the car, one of them shouted, "Freeze! Don't move!"

Circling him on the steps up to his front door, the police pulled Guzman up to a standing position and began patting him down. They dug into his pants pockets, lifted up his shirt, and made him take off his shoes. When Guzman protested that he was sitting in front of his own house, one of the officers responded that he didn't belong in the neighborhood. The police told him to put his shoes back on and then ordered him to leave the area. Guzman was 11 years old.

"It was very confusing to me," Guzman recently told me. "Before that incident I thought [the police] were heroes. When they violated me like that, it was like seeing Batman or Superman slap a baby."

It wasn't the last encounter Guzman would have with the police. Now 26 years old and working as a technician at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, Guzman estimates he was stopped by police 20 times in 2012 alone. "Multiply that number by the last 15 years of my life and you'll have an idea of how many times I've been stopped," Guzman told me.

When I asked Guzman why he is stopped so often, he guessed it was due to his appearance. "I'm brown skinned, look young, and have tattoos," he said. "To the cops I look like someone who is up to no good."

Guzman's perception that NYPD officers identify suspicious persons based on race seems to be confirmed by the numbers. A New York Civil Liberties Union analysis of police data found that in 2011, young black and Latino men accounted for almost half of all of the 685,724 stops reported by police. Together, young black and Latino men account for just 4.6 percent of the city's total population. Ninety percent of young black and Latino men stopped were found to be innocent.

Supporters of Stop and Frisk have responded to criticisms of these racial disparities by stating that the program operates most intensely in neighborhoods with high crime rates. According to these supporters, the higher prevalence of crime in black and Latino neighborhoods necessitates more police activity. The disproportionate number of stops of black and Latino males, they say, has less to do with their skin color than their location.

This line of reasoning doesn't seem to line up with the NYPD's data. For instance, in Greenwich Village, which is overwhelmingly white, 70 percent of those stopped in 2011 were black or Latino. If Stop and Frisk were applied more evenly, one would expect white people to account for more than 30 percent of "suspicious" individuals in a predominately white neighborhood.

Others argue that Stop and Frisk exists primarily to prevent gun violence, which occurs most often in Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and other mostly black and Latino neighborhoods. "If the police get a description of a young brown man carrying a gun, should they be forced to stop a Norwegian grandmother just to prove they aren't biased?" City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. asked me recently while explaining his support of Stop and Frisk. A Democrat representing Astoria and the chair of the Council's Public Safety Committee, Vallone has found himself surrounded by Council members ready to curtail the program. "If we end it, gun violence is going to go through the roof."

When debating racial disparities, Vallone's point about decreased gun violence is a potent defense of Stop and Frisk. In 2011, 770 guns were recovered across New York during frisks. That amounts to a 30 percent increase over 2003, when 594 guns were recovered. However, in order to find those additional 176 guns, half a million more people were stopped and frisked throughout the city.

For the program's detractors, these numbers indicate that the NYPD is needlessly harassing more than 1,500 innocent people a day and infringing on the civil liberties of many. Program supporters such as Vallone see these numbers as a sign that Stop and Frisk is deterring people in targeted communities from carrying guns. These views are not mutually exclusive.

Presented by

Jesse Alejandro Cottrell is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician.

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