Growing Up With Stop-and-Frisk

Living in one of New York City's most bloody neighborhoods, Jamal Richards learned to fear the police more than criminal gangs.
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A Brownsville, NY housing project. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

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.

"There is always this feeling that there is a 50/50 percent chance that either I am gonna be fine or I am about to get hassled," said Jamal.

Crossing Palmetto Street near his old high school, Jamal passed a three-story-tall mural on a corner building. He painted it with some friends two years ago when he was still living in Brownsville. The painting showed Jamal being frisked by an officer in the middle of the street, legs spread, hands cuffed.

It seemed a lifetime ago. Now, Jamal was on his way to meet his friend Najahwan Goode to visit the teachers at their former high school. "Show off this college merchandise," as he put it: Jamal never walked these streets without it. He called it his "police protection gear." The sweatshirt read Buffalo State College on the front, and wearing that, Jamal felt untouchable. The police would spot that he was now a university student, not some criminal kid about to do wrong. And then they'd leave him alone, he figured.

"Hey look at you, Mr. Smarty Pants," said one teacher when she spotted Jamal outside the school building. "You look like a real man now." It had only been six months but maybe it was the college clothes working their magic.

Jamal and Nahjahwan had hardly closed the door behind them before the NYPD school security officer stopped them for ID.

"Sorry, I can't let you in," said the officer.

"But we used to be students..." said Jamal.

The officer shook her head and called the head of security, then shook her head again. Jamal and Najahwan called a teacher for help.

"These are good kids. Jamal was one of my best students," the teacher told the cop.

It took three phone calls to the security office before Jamal and Nahjahwan were finally allowed to go through the metal detector.

"This is exactly what I am talking about," said Jamal as he took off his belt and key chain, placed it in his cap with his phone and iPod to send them through the X-Ray.

"You constantly have this negative eye on you just waiting for you to mess up. As if you're already in the pipeline to prison," he said entering the metal detector.

Nahjahwan used to get into fights with the officers patrolling every floor on the school. Jamal never did. He kept telling himself that soon it would be over. Soon he would be out of here, on his way to some place better.

As the stop-and-frisk case went to trial this spring, far from Brownsville, Jamal Richards had almost forgotten about stop-and-frisk. Strutting down Delaware Avenue, the main street around Buffalo State College, he didn't have to look over his shoulder or worry about whether his hands in his pockets might cause some cop to mistake him for having a gun. Here, he was frisk free.

Other students called him "the king of confidence," and his friend Sean Pitcher talked about the "Jamal Zone," some sort of magnetic space around the boy from Brownsville, attracting girls "with a flick of his fingers." Pitcher, eager to find a girlfriend for himself, but too awkward and uncomfortable around women, was trying to lure a few tricks from Jamal.

And the Brownsville boy taught him his secret: He was using his anti-police tactics on the girls.

"You can show absolutely no fear," said Jamal, "They smell it at a distance, and then you're done."

Jamal wouldn't let any girl tie him down, though. All he wanted was to be free and careless, and worry about nothing but his favorite subject.

"Genetics. DNA is so cool. It's what makes my eyes brown and your eyes green," he said.

One day, Jamal wanted to become that guy who would figure out how to unlock more capacity from the human brain. He figured it might put an end to racial profiling and make the world a better place, especially the world of Brownsville.

"Imagine a world where officers don't see a criminal whenever a child is leaving school or playing in the park. Where they see something positive instead of something negative," said Jamal. That was his dream.

Now, with the ruling against stop-and-frisk, his dream is looking just a little closer to reality.

"No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life," federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin stated.

She didn't put an end to stop-and-frisk, but did order greater oversight: a court-appointed monitor will be a new check on the New York Police Department that didn't exist before.

Mayor Bloomberg denied that any major changes would happen overnight. He also vowed that the city will appeal the court decision, and in Brownsville the U.S. federal court in Manhattan seemed very far away from the police on the street.

"Frankly, I don't think the ruling will change much in the long run. It might have some effect on a higher level, but we still have to fight crime," said officer Dyce.

There exists no smoking gun proving a correlation between stop-and-frisk and crime decline in Brownsville or anywhere else in the city. A gun was found in only .15 percent of stops during 2012, but the Brownsville police still believed their tool was working.

"Once the community no longer have the protection of stop and frisk, they might start losing their loved ones, and then they'd wish they hadn't been crying so much about it," said Dyce.

Perhaps, but that's not the reaction right now. "This is what I've been waiting for as long as I can remember," said Jamal.



This post has been updated to reflect the correct name of the bus line taken by Jamal Richards.

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Sara Maria Glanowski is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. 

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