IF YOU want to mess with the New York Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, you’re going to have to go through Michael Bloomberg.
The mayor likes to imply that stop-and-frisk is a heroic anti-racist cause and that its critics, many of whom are longtime civil rights activists, just don’t care about the safety of people of color.
Last month, Bloomberg called out the New York Times, which has belatedly begun pointing out that a policy of mass interrogation of youth of color without probable cause just might be unconstitutional, for running more articles about stop-and-frisk than murder victims:
“All the news that’s fit to print” did not include the murder of 17-year-old Alphonza Bryant. Do you think that if a white 17-year-old prep student from Manhattan had been murdered, the Times would have ignored it?…I loathe that 17-year-old minority children can be senselessly murdered in the Bronx and some of the media doesn’t even consider it news.
So it’s pretty shocking to learn that over the past year, the NYPD actually reduced the number of recorded stop-and-frisks by 50 percent.
What happened, Mayor Mike? You say that you’re down with the struggle and your cops care so much about Latinos and Blacks that they’re willing to throw thousands of them across car hoods every single day. Now we feel betrayed.
Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly appear to be decreasing stop-and-frisks because years of grassroots activism have shifted public opinion and laid the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit Floyd v. City of New York. Many people expect the outcome will go against the city.
Not that they’ll admit it, of course. When asked about the major drop in stop-and-frisks, NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne claimed that it doesn’t reflect a change in policy, but merely “what the police officers on duty during that quarter observed.”
But we know that’s not true, and not just because Paul Browne is such a notorious liar that I highly recommend googling “Paul Browne lies.” Thanks to the testimony and secret police precinct recordings in Floyd v. City of New York, we now have proof that the stop-and-frisks are driven not by what cops see in the streets, but to fulfill quotas given to them by their supervisors.
Even before the Floyd case, however, it was obvious that most stop-and-frisks aren’t based on police observation. Do you want to know why? Because they never find anything! Of the 685,000 stop-and-frisks in 2011, illegal contraband was found only 2 percent of the time. If those were based on police observation, then Bloomberg could become a hero in many neighborhoods just by ordering department-wide eye exams.
Let’s be real: the only thing being observed is skin color—84 percent of those stopped were Black or Latino.
BUT NONE of this explains why Bloomberg has been relentlessly promoting a policy that he seems to be phasing out. This is a guy who last summer went to a Black church in Brooklyn where stop-and-frisks are unpopular and confidently declared, “we are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives.”
You might think that the mayor would trumpet the lower stop-and-frisk numbers to show that he is responding to community concerns. But that’s not how people in power generally think. Bloomberg doesn’t want the activists who have been exposing stop-and-frisk through years of protests and meetings to think they have made an impact. Even more importantly, he doesn’t want the greater numbers of people who might become activists in the future to think it’s made a difference.
But there’s an even more important reason why Bloomberg has kept up the bluster about stop-and-frisk, even while toning it down in practice. It turns out that when the police walked away from a strategy that supposedly saves lives, it saved lives.
That’s right, the murder rate in New York City is down an astounding 30 percent from last year. Bloomberg wants to highlight that number, of course, but if he wants to take credit for it, he can’t have it be known that the decrease coincides with a similar decrease in the policy he’s been saying we need to reduce murders.
The only relationship between violent crime and stop-and-frisk seems to be that the same people are victims of both in many cases. That’s the tragic lesson of the very young man who Bloomberg tried to use against the New York Times. Alphonza Bryant’s mother Jenai Van Doten wrote a powerful account in the New York Daily News about how a few months before his murder, her son was stopped and frisked by cops who cursed at him for being on the phone with his mother asking what he should do.
Like many who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, Van Doten is on the fence about stop-and-frisk:
I support stop-and-frisks. I’m open to anything that gets guns off our streets. The policy works sometimes, but not all the time. I’m not a lawmaker, but the stops need to be better targeted at real criminals…
Stop-and-frisks are random. Does it apply to every child that wears a hoodie? It should be modified—it’s not working the way they intended. Out of so many stop-and-frisks, how many people stopped have handguns?
Some people are saying stop-and-frisks are terrorizing our kids. Some kids need to be terrorized. Maybe my son wouldn’t have been shot if the right kids were terrorized.
IT’S AN understandable sentiment, even for someone who hasn’t just lost a child: Most people would like to have a police force that stopped crime without randomly targeting people based on clothing or skin color. It really shouldn’t be that complicated.
But that’s based on the false assumption that the main reason the police are in our neighborhoods is to stop crime. The Bloomberg administration is famous for its reliance on data—does anyone believe that the NYPD didn’t already know there’s no correlation between crime rates and stop-and-frisk? Of course they do. But stopping crime isn’t the main reason they patrol the streets.
Here is how David Whitehouse, speaking at Socialism 2012, explained the primary role of the police from their origin:
The police were invented in England and the United States in just the space of a few decades, roughly from 1825 to 1855. The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to any new methods in dealing with crime. The most important way for authorities to solve crime, then and now, is for someone to tell them who did it. It’s the old way. Besides, crime has to do with the acts of individuals, and the ruling elites who invented the police were responding to collective action.
To put it in a nutshell, the police were created in response to large defiant crowds. That was strikes in England, riots in the Northern U.S., and the threat of slave insurrection in the South. The police are a response to crowds, not crime.
Okay, well, that was almost 200 years ago. Surely cops don’t sit around the station house talking about how their true purpose is to suppress the rebellious underclass. But apparently, they do. Here’s how one Brooklyn supervisor puts it on one of the secretly recorded tapes played at the Floyd trial:
If you get too big of a crowd there, you know, they’re going to get out of control, and they’re going to think that they own the block. We own the block. They don’t own the block, alright? They might live there, but we own the block, alright? We own the streets here.
The phrase “we own the streets” is almost identical to the motto of the NYPD’s old Street Crimes Unit: “We own the night.” That unit was disbanded after the outrage and protest that followed officers from the unit firing 41 bullets at unarmed Amadou Diallo in 1999. Then there was the notoriously brutal and corrupt CRASH unit of the Los Angeles police, whose slogan was “we intimidate those who intimidate others.”
Notice the slogans, especially. None of them are like: “Let’s stop crime so the people in this neighborhood can be safe and happy!”
If you still think the idea that the police are more designed to suppress the population than to help it is far-fetched, think back to a time that you went to them to report a crime. Chances are you experienced the distinct sensation that the police couldn’t care less.
I’m not just talking about poor customer service; we all have bad days at work. But no matter what kind of attitude I might get from behind the counter when I order a bagel, I’m going to end up with a bagel. I’m not going to be told, “Well, I can enter a bagel request in the system, but I can tell you right now nothing’s going to happen.”
BECAUSE POWER and authority is the heart of what the police do, we should consider the possibility that the cops aren’t actually doing any fewer stop-and-frisks, but are just recording fewer of them.
The fact that they recorded all of them so meticulously in the first place might turn out to be a historical anomaly—the odd result of combining traditional police thuggery with the Bloomberg administration’s nerdy bean-counting culture. You can picture Bloomberg convening a meeting of precinct commanders—”So tell me, captain, what’s the latest metrics on how many arms we’ve broken in the 70th?”
But even if that turns out to be the case, activists shouldn’t be discouraged, because it’s clear that years of organizing against police violence are having an effect. And I’m not just talking about the drop in stop-and-frisks. The normally smooth and confident billionaire mayor is being reduced to rambling paranoia when he tries to defend the department. Consider this comment:
Stop playing politics with public safety. Look at what’s happened in Boston. Remember what happened here on 9/11. Remember all of those who’ve been killed by gun violence—and the families they left behind.
Wow, 9/11 and everything. Perhaps the next time cops shoot an unarmed victim, they’ll claim they thought he was reaching into his pocket for a Boeing 767.
As Leonard Levitt notes at NYPD Confidential, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani would certainly approve of his successor’s approach. But for the rest of the city, Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk stories are getting pretty far-fetched.