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Pushing My Reset Button on Street Crime

November 3, 2013

New York’s Struggle Over Stop-and Frisk

by Lawrence Bush from the Autumn, 2013 issue of Jewish Currents BushThere were 4.4 million stop-and-frisk police actions in New York City between 2002 and 2011: that’s nearly 8,500 per week. They increased dramatically over the course of the decade, from 97,296 in 2002 to 685,724 in 2011. Close to 3.9 million of these police actions were directed at men of color, of whom there are about 2 million in the city. Fewer than 6 percent of the stop-and-frisks resulted in actual arrests, and another 6 percent yielded a summons (often of the “disorderly conduct” harassment type that force people to show up in court). Weapons were found in only one half of one percent of these 4.4 million stops, with close to 6,000 guns confiscated. Ruling August 12th in Floyd v. New York City, Federal District Judge Shira Scheindlin declared that the above figures, drawn from the police department’s own records, paint a picture of what she ruled to be unconstitutional trespasses by the NYPD in its stop-and-frisk procedures. Because they were usually not prompted by “individualized reasonable suspicion,” Judge Scheindlin wrote, but instead involved obvious racial profiling —“because two black males committed crimes in Queens, all black males in that borough were subject to heightened police attention” — the NYPD had violated not only of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures but the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees. This decision, assuming that it withstands the appeals process [Judge Scheindlin’s decision was suspended by an appeals court on November 2nd, pending resolution in 2014 — Ed.], is an important part of the growing campaign against the “New Jim Crow” — the mass incarceration of people of color — that I wrote about in in Spring 2013. More than that, however, it is a reprieve from terror and alienation for tens of thousands of young men of color who are constantly vulnerable to police aggression and venality. But what about those nearly 6,000 confiscated guns? What about the reality that street crimes in New York City — muggings, pocketbook grabs, apartment break-ins, and the like — are disproportionately committed by young African-American or Latino men? To my mind, opposing stop-and-frisk policing without explicitly addressing fears about street crime would be an out-of-touch way to try to organize people. To many New Yorkers, racial profiling is tolerable, even an intuitively sound idea, because of what they believe to be the likelihood of street criminals being black. Conservative commentators, moreover, have been demagogues about this issue ever since the days when Richard Nixon inaugurated the War on Drugs. So let’s not be shy: Here are the NYPD’s arrest statistics for 2012: 94 percent of people for robbery were African-American or Latino, as were 86 percent for assault, 80 percent for grand larceny, 83 percent for petit larceny, 97 percent for shootings — and 80 percent for murder or non-negligent manslaughter and 91 percent for rape (from “Crime and Enforcement Activity in New York City,” an online report from Oy gevald. Tears happyThere is little doubt that these numbers are skewed by police policies that target people of color. According to the Center on Disease Control’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, for example, in 2001 whites and African Americans carried weapons, including guns, at very similar rates, yet black youth accounted for one third of all the arrests for weapons. Similarly, the CDC reported a nearly equal number of blacks and whites being involved in physical fights, but the arrest rate for aggravated assault was three times higher for African-Americans. The use of illegal drugs, including marijuana, is also far more likely to get you arrested and convicted if you’re black than if you’re white. There is, nevertheless, a bottom-line reality for both white and non-white residents of New York that motivates them to profile young men of color as “trouble” more than anyone else on the block. (In truth, we have more to fear from Wall Street crooks, but that’s another story.) I did the same, based on my own experiences of being ripped off, when I lived in New York for the first half of my adult life. As a bike-riding college student heading south from City College, I had my wheels yanked out from under me by three Hispanic guys, one with a hunting knife, in broad daylight in Central Park. As a hippie in the East Village, I was held up by a black guy in my building with a pen knife to my throat. As a member of a collective house in Brooklyn, I was robbed, alongside my wife, at gunpoint by two young black men on our own stoop. From these and several other scary incidents, I learned to be suspicious of black and Latino youth, and to live with bars across all my windows — and, perhaps, across my heart. So if preserving Lawrence Bush’s security is the only consideration, racial profiling seems efficient and reasonable. However, despite the NYPD and Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to present stop-and-frisk as a miracle of crime prevention (a highly arguable proposition, but not here), what’s at stake is not predominantly about the crime rate, it’s about the Constitution. Stop-and-frisks traumatize and impede the lives of tens of thousands of innocent men, often repeatedly, in hope of nabbing a few bad guys. That’s un-American: We are not allowed to solve our problems in the U.S. by making mass sweeps that drag down the innocent with the guilty, not even if it works to prevent crime or terrorism. As Judge Sheindlin wrote in her decision: [T]his case is not about the effectiveness of stop and frisk in deterring or combating crime. This Court’s mandate is solely to judge the constitutionality of police behavior, not its effectiveness as a law-enforcement tool. Many police practices may be useful for fighting crime — preventative detention or coerced confessions, for example — but because they are unconstitutional they cannot be used, no matter how effective. She continued: It is important to recognize the human toll of unconstitutional stops. While it is true that any one stop is a limited intrusion in duration and deprivation of liberty, each stop is also a demeaning and humiliating experience. No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life. Those who are routinely subjected to stops are overwhelmingly people of color, and they are justifiably troubled to be singled out when many of them have done nothing to attract the unwanted attention. Some plaintiffs testified that stops make them feel unwelcome in some parts of the city, and distrustful of the police. . . . Bringing it back to the personal: For sure, I was freaked out by the sight of a gun during that hold-up (I swear, it looked to me as big as a bazooka), but that doesn’t mean that thousands of other people should themselves be freaked out by having police guns pointed at them while they’re lying on the ground. During the Floyd v. City of New York trial, David Ourlicht (a grandson of our veteran reader Boris Ourlicht) testified about three stop-and-frisks he endured, including one with police guns drawn, three out of “more times than I could count on my fingers or on the cops’ fingers,” he subsequently told an audience at the Workmen’s Circle in New York last May. “It got to the point where I said that I just can’t do nothing about it any more. I was doing everything I was supposed to do: I was in college, I was doing well, this was not supposed to be happening to me.” I was doubtful that Judge Scheindlin’s decision would be popular among New Yorkers until I witnessed Bill Blasio’s meteoric rise in the polls, which came about at least in part because of his vigorous opposition to stop-and-frisk. My calculation/prediction was that constitutional rights pale for most people when juxtaposed against the right to feel safe and secure — and that if street crime rates do go up in the next few years (we are, after all, in a major economic recession) while stop-and-frisks go down, that could mean a City Hall takeover by a Rudy Giuliani-type politician. Instead, my multi-ethnic city of origin has revealed its extraordinary sense of decency once again. Even in hard times, however, we cannot be sunshine patriots when it comes to defending the Constitution. We have to be ready to endure insecurity if that’s what’s needed to respect people’s rights. More than that: We have to recognize the collective nature of social reality, despite the incessant right-wing messaging that defines “democracy” only as the right to be left alone. That’s where my self-awareness as a Jew, not just as a white guy who’s been mugged a bunch of times, especially kicks in. It’s as a Jew that I fathom how abiding and destructive racist stereotyping can be, rather than seeking, like most of white America, to deny its presence. And it’s also as a Jew that I view the world as an interrelated network of collective responsibility. The Talmud puts it most simply: “All are held responsible for one another,” it says, amid a rabbinical discussion about the stain of “sin” across the generations (Sanhedrin 27b). Here’s my translation: However many stop-and-frisk operations, mammoth prisons, or gated communities we pay for, we will all be living with the consequences of the “sin” of permitting fully a third of black and Latino Americans to live in hard poverty, with millions more hovering near the poverty line — this after generations of slavery and exploitation, Jim Crow and “illegal” status, inferior education, job and housing discrimination, and harsh policing. In New York City, where a far greater percentage of black and brown people are poor than are criminals, the New York Times disclosed on the day of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, August 24th, that $168,000 per prisoner is spent annually to maintain the city’s jails. Add in the cost of 4.4 million stop-and-frisks and you’d have enough money to give jobs to half the unemployed in Brooklyn! What a wasteful, gruesome investment in misery we’re permitting. I’m not claiming here that street crime can be entirely explained as a product of poverty. At least three African-American speakers at that 50th anniversary March spoke with courage and honesty about their community’s need to put its own house in order and to reckon, in particular, with the culture of youth violence. Still, crime is definitely one of the avenging angels of social injustice, and will only be deterred by social justice. Unless we abolish the U.S. Constitution and hand our security over to the Cossacks, we’re going to have to live with that responsibility on our shoulders. Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents.