What Jamaal Vassell describes as one of the most challenging days of his life actually began at night, in 2010. An outgoing and popular presence at his neighborhood community center, Vassell, then 17, had traveled from his home in Canarsie, Brooklyn, to neighboring Brownsville to play basketball by himself at his favorite court. After making a few shots, a few younger boys, around 14 years old, joined in. They were all playing ball together until three New York City Police Department officers stopped them.
Vassell was used to it. He had already been stopped twice by NYPD officers—once after popping into a convenience store after school and another time as he walked home from a local recreation center one night. The walk from the rec center ended with the officers handing him a summons for what he calls “smoking and hanging out too late,” two activities he vehemently denies doing. Nonetheless, he was ordered to show up in court. The summons seemed like being sent to detention, he says, so he ignored it. “I was busy, a lot of people wanted my time,” says Vassell, who is now 20.
But the decision to ignore the summons came back to haunt him that night on the basketball court. When the officers asked if Vassell had any outstanding warrants, he told them about it. The police looked up his record and indeed found the summons. He and the other boys were handcuffed and driven to the local police station. They were separated and went from one precinct to another where they were held among other young people awaiting charges. In total, Vassell spent two days in jail before he went before a judge, matter-of-factly paid the fine for his summons, and was released. The other boys were held in custody longer for, as Vassell describes, “doing things they shouldn’t have been doing”— smoking weed, a fairly commonplace activity for plenty of teens.
In most neighborhoods in America, it is not a crime to play basketball after dark. But in Brownsville, where a majority of the population is black, even the most innocuous activities can lead to run-ins with the cops. The neighborhood is at the center of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, a deeply controversial tactic of policing that has drawn the ire of many communities of color in New York City and beyond. Heralded by the Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration as necessary for curbing the spread of illegal guns and their use in violent crimes, stop-and-frisk allows—some have argued, mandates—officers to approach people they deem suspicious and search them. In 2010, when Vassell was stopped, The New York Times reported that between June and March of 2006 police made nearly 52,000 stops within an eight-block radius in the neighborhood.
Stop-and-frisk has become one of New York City’s most hotly contested public policies, with proponents citing the program to explain the city’s stark drop in violent crime over the past two decades. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly recently sat on a gun-violence panel at the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference and defended his department’s use of the program. “African Americans, who represent 23 percent of the city’s population, made up 64 percent of the murder victims and 71 percent of shooting victims in [New York City] last year,” Kelly said. “We utilized the long-established right of the police to stop and question individuals about whom we have reasonable suspicion.” He added that he believes stop-and-frisk is a life-saving tactic and constitutional as upheld by the Supreme Court in 1968 in Terry v. Ohio.
But many New Yorkers disagree, and the constitutionality of the practice is currently being debated in federal court. Floyd v. City of New York is a class-action lawsuit in which the plaintiffs contend that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program violates both the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures and the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
At a press briefing days before the trial began in March, David Ourlicht, one of the four named plaintiffs in the case, explained the program’s visceral impact: “I don’t [want to] have to walk outside and have that thought in the back of my mind: ‘Is this the time will they shoot me or will I get beat up? Will I go to jail for something I didn’t do?’ I want to be able to move on and not have to feel that.”
Khary Lazarre-White, an attorney and executive director at the Harlem-based nonprofit The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, knows the issue personally and politically. He’s sat in high-level meetings to make his case against the tactic with city officials, including Commissioner Kelley. “It’s happened to me twice, and I’m an attorney who dresses like you would expect an attorney to dress,” he says about stop-and-frisk. “This is a very immediate presence and an emotional issue.”
But for New York City’s brass, the program boils down to numbers. According to their logic, the more stops you make, the more guns you take off the streets, and the safer the city becomes. But the data on the stops don’t quite justify this support of the program. Between 2003 and 2011, the NYPD conducted 524,873 stops, but in each of those years, fewer than 0.5 percent of cases produced guns, according to a 2011 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union. Critics point out that 86 percent of those stopped were black and Latino and say that the program feeds racial profiling and violates the constitutional rights of New York’s residents, an argument at the center of the class-action suit.
But few have openly explored how the program has changed the ways that black and Latino residents move about New York City. For Vassell, stop-and-frisk has turned into a lightning-rod in the 2013 New York City mayoral election and the case is based on a reality that’s become absolutely normal: The police are everywhere, they’re always watching, and they can stop you whenever and wherever they want. “I understand that it’s going to happen,” Vassell says of the stops. “I know how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and I have nothing to hide.”
Hearing Vassell talk about how he expects to be stopped and questioned by the police is reminiscent of the ways in which Jim Crow operated in the Deep South as a legally permissible form of social control. But, according to Rosa Squillacote, who works as a policy advocate at the Police Reform Organizing Project in New York City, what’s been especially noteworthy in the trial so far is the testimony by officers who are opposed to the practice but are pressured into making a high number of stops.
“Police officers are testifying that this is not helping them do their jobs,” Squillacote says. “It’s hurting their relationship with community members.”
During the first week of Floyd v. The City of New York, NYPD officer Adhyl Polanco, an eight-year veteran of the force who works in the Bronx, testified that he was told to make one arrest and write 20 tickets each month. “They said, ‘You do it, or you are going to become a Pizza Hut deliveryman,” Polanco said. “I started recording it because I could not believe what I was hearing.”
Black and Latino communities have long been suspicious of police, but the danger of the NYPD’s program is that it further engrains the idea that police officers are an occupying force instead of public servants who protect citizens. When I spoke with Phillip Atiba Goff, who heads the Racial Bias in Policing project at the Russell Sage Foundation, he told me how damaging it was for kids in these communities to find themselves on the opposite side of the law.
“We have preliminary evidence, the more contact you have with law enforcement, the more you end up fearing the world sees you as a criminal,” Goff told me. That sort of unique stress doesn’t just lead to anger, but to conditions like hypertension later on in life.
Equally as troubling is what this type of policing says about who does and doesn’t get the full rights of citizenship in the country. David Brotherton, a political-science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, says that such mechanisms of social control go deeply against the purported values of our society. “When you have level upon level of surveillance of highly vulnerable populations, kids grow up with very strange notions of a free society and a Democratic process,” he says. “There's a paranoia that's justified, and for many of them, it's the beginning of the American nightmare.”
At least this part of the nightmare may be eased soon. Critics of stop-and-frisk who are observing Floyd have been optimistic that a judge will rule against the program.
“I am moderately, cautiously optimistic,” says Lazarre-White, the attorney in Harlem. “What’s unusual about this case is that because this policy was put into place simply by edict of the mayor and because there’s a [mayoral] election coming, there could be a complete transformation in six months. Rarely does the organizing community see that type of win. It’s changed the culture and community because people feel like enough is enough.”
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