Jamal Richards of Brownsville, Brooklyn could have been a poster child for the regime of fear that stop-and-frisk created in minority neighborhoods during the past decade. In his early teens, Jamal was stopped four or five times a week. "24/7, 365. That's a lot of stops, you do the math," he said.
The Brownsville police, defending the tactic for getting guns off the streets, called it "collateral damage" or "being in the wrong place at the wrong time," as officer Leonard Dyce put it.
This is stop-and-frisk central. For every 100 residents, police make 93 stops, more than 15 times as many as in New York City in general. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly the stop-and-frisk program expanded 500 percent, stopping 533,042 people in 2012 compared to 97,296 in 2002. Of more than five million people stopped in New York City during that decade, 4.3 million were black or Hispanic. Nearly 90 percent of those being stopped are released without a summons or an arrest.
Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional in the landmark class-action trial Floyd vs. the City of New York, stating that officers conducted indirect racial profiling, disproportionately and illegally targeting blacks and Hispanics who wouldn't be stopped had they been white.
Brownsville, where Jamal grew up, is a predominantly black neighborhood consisting roughly of two square miles of public housing, and one of the poorest and most violent in the city. The Brownsville police call it a "busy precinct." It had 15 murders last year, down from 26 in 2001, and 74 in 1993. There is a saying that if you are 25, you are either dead or in jail or you are done with the gang life. That's of course an overstatement, but in fact, of the young characters in the neighborhood, "some are good, some are bad, and some are really, really ugly," said Dyce. "The really ugly" are so-called "young guns," trigger-happy teenagers from broken homes, loaded with .9 millimeter pistols and nothing to lose -- members of notorious gangs like the Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings or MS-13, fighting turf wars with each other and turning the 73rd into an unpredictable precinct.
"This is a world where you never know what's going to happen next, or who the enemy is. Brownsville can be quiet for weeks, but all of a sudden it turns into the Wild West," said officer Lesly Lafontant, Dyce's partner.
Growing up, Jamal was one of those bright kids who went to a special class for students whose grades were exceptional. He skipped his freshman year in high school because he could practically teach the class. Jamal used his smarts to deal with stop-and-frisk and quickly developed survival strategies for venturing outside his house. For example, he switched to the L train instead of the heavily policed B60 bus route or split up with friends in the street so that he never walked in a crowd. There were also days when Jamal felt like proving that he was exactly the criminal he felt the police officers treated him like, days when he wanted to smash an officer to the ground.
"It's like having a fly constantly buzzing your ear, whispering that you are a bad person," he said. "At some point, you just want to smack that fly." Jamal had seen his friends do it. Last summer, they were playing basketball in the park when an officer told them to leave even though the park was open another hour. One of his friends got so angry that he threw his basketball and hit the officer.
"He had just been pushed to the corner for too long," said Jamal. "We all gave each other that look: 'He did it, he really did it.'" The police arrested Jamal's friend. "It's quite a common story around here that at some point you end up proving them right."
Jamal wanted to prove them wrong. In January 2012, he moved from Brownsville to Buffalo State to study biotechnology, and he hasn't been stopped a single time since he arrived. When he spoke of Buffalo, he sounded as if he had been to the mountaintop.
"Oh man, it's another world. Over there, they look at me and see that I am just a nerd, not a criminal," he said while offering a tour of his old neighborhood. There are areas of Brownsville Jamal has never seen. He calls them "the '90s," and imagines that they are just as dangerous and scary as New York City during that decade. When we walked the streets of Brownsville, he was alert.
"Don't look at him," he suddenly said.
On his left side, a fierce looking thug with tattooed tears dripping down his cheeks was passing by. In Brownsville, as elsewhere, the tear tattoo signals gang affiliation, and the one with the ink drops usually got them in jail, one tear for each murder he committed. The guy passing by had three.
"Just keep on walking," Jamal whispered. It wasn't the thug he worried about. He was warning about an officer watching him closely as he approached a parked squad car.
"Oh dear, here we go," said Jamal. He was already in procedure mode. "First, he is gonna ask me for my ID, then I give it to him, then he is gonna ask me if I live in the area, even though he can see on my ID where I live. Then he is gonna ask me if I know the area that I grew up in, and then he is probably gonna let me go and tell me to have a nice day."
The police didn't stop Jamal this time. Maybe it was because they didn't think he looked suspicious this particular day. Perhaps it was because Jamal was walking around with a journalist.