On the Human Cost of Stop-and-Frisk

Nicholas K. Peart is a 23-year-old black man living in New York City. He's been stopped and frisked by police at least five times. His account of the corrosive legacy of an invasive police tactic is going viral.

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Writing in The New York Times, Nicholas K. Peart recounts what it feels like to be a young black man in New York in the age of controversial stop-and-frisk policing. From a young age, he has acted on the advice his mother gave him: don't argue with police or run from them, or you could be shot. Instead, he has been subjected to humiliating encounters with police, seemingly based on nothing more than the color of his skin and his presence in neighborhoods outside his own.

We were talking, watching the night go by, enjoying the evening when suddenly, and out of nowhere, squad cars surrounded us. A policeman yelled from the window, “Get on the ground!”

I was stunned. And I was scared. Then I was on the ground — with a gun pointed at me. I couldn’t see what was happening but I could feel a policeman’s hand reach into my pocket and remove my wallet. Apparently he looked through and found the ID I kept there. “Happy Birthday,” he said sarcastically. The officers questioned my cousin and friend, asked what they were doing in town, and then said goodnight and left us on the sidewalk.

A series of encounters like this one, each jarring, terrifying, and infuriating, leaves a corrosive effect, says Peart, who is a plaintiff in the suit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights to end the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies. It leaves a lingering aftertaste for black and Latino residents of the city that is counterproductive to the often-invoked ideal of community policing. People who have this done to them don't want anything to do with the police.

When I was young I thought cops were cool. They had a respectable and honorable job to keep people safe and fight crime. Now, I think their tactics are unfair and they abuse their authority. The police should consider the consequences of a generation of young people who want nothing to do with them — distrust, alienation and more crime.

Resistance to stop-and-frisk on these grounds is not new. Back in 1999, then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer compiled reports filed by officers from their stops of individuals and found startling numbers: black New Yorkers made up about 25 percent of the population and yet accounted for 50 percent of the total stops. Latinos were also stopped at rates higher than their presence in the population, while the case was just the opposite for whites. White people made up 43 percent of the city's population, Spitzer found, but just 13 percent of stops by police.

But said opposition to stop-and-frisk is a headache officials like Commissioner Ray Kelly have learned to ignore. See this video, via Gothamist, of activist Matthew Swaye attempting last month to award Kelly the 2011 Bull Connor Award for "keeping the city safe for white people."

Swaye explains his rationale for opposing stop-and-frisk to Gothamist, and it's reminiscent of Peart's warning about the effect on young people of undergoing an ordeal that seems so unfair, and to be applied so clearly along racial lines.

Swaye, a 34-year-old Columbia grad and former 7th grade teacher at Kipp Academy in the Bronx, said he became involved with Stop Stop And Frisk because many of his students had been stopped and he hadn't. "All my boys had been stopped and it keeps us from having any sort of equal relationship. I'm a poet, if anyone is suspicious, it's me! Why aren't they stopping me?"

The city is not without dissenting voices, however, as Renee Barrett proved in the New York Daily News, in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Officer Peter Figoski in the line of duty last week. In short, Barrett said, blame the violent criminals who make this policing strategy necessary, not the cops who have to do the work.

Referring to Figoski's accused killer, Lamont Pride, who was wanted on a warrant in North Carolina but never extradited by that state, Barrett writes:

If Pride had, on the streets of Brooklyn, been stopped and frisked, cops probably would have noticed his warrants. They might have caught him carrying a gun. And another senseless death could have been prevented.

Why don’t Williams, Jeffries and other critics of the NYPD reach out to the communities they represent and — in voices every bit as loud as those they so often use to decry the cops’ supposedly racist behavior — urge them to cooperate with the police?

Too many of us are fighting the wrong battles. Yes, racism is inevitable, just like poverty and crime. But this is not the 1960s. We aren’t living under Jim Crow segregation. There are opportunities for those that want them.

But that doesn't address the issue of disproportionate enforcement of a law, and whether the police are violating the Constitution in infringing on the rights of individuals in the public street. And Pride had already been in custody on his warrant and released. It's hard to see how jacking Nicholas Peart up against a wall is preventing anything. It may instead be doing great, permanent harm to both citizens and the police.

In Philadelphia, a possible solution arose this summer: a court settlement with the ACLU under which that city's stop-and-frisk policing would continue, but under supervision by a court to assure constitutionality. Perhaps that's a way forward for New York that balances perceived benefits of proactive policing with the rights — to say nothing of the dignity — of people like Nicholas Peart.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.