Last month, the New York Civil Liberties Union released some extremely disturbing data about "stop and frisk" searches in New York City. Since 1968, the Supreme Court has held that warrantless patdown searches by police require only "reasonable suspicion" rather than the "probable cause" required to obtain a search warrant under the Fourth Amendment. This watered-down standard has always been subject to abuse, and there can be little doubt that this has been the case in New York.
A remarkable 685,724 New Yorkers were subject to such warrantless searches in 2011—compared to fewer than 100,000 in 1993. Nearly 90 percent of those subject to these searches were innocent. And, worse, most of those found "guilty" were guilty of minor drug possession charges—less than 2 percent of those subject to stop-and-frisk searches were carrying a firearm. And, worst of all, what constitutes a "reasonable suspicion" is clearly defined in substantial measure by racial profiling.
87 percent of those subject to stop-and-frisk searches are black or latino, although blacks and latinos make up only about 50 percent of the population of the city. And even in predominantly white neighborhoods, people of color are far more likely to be subject to stop and frisk searches. The data was appalling enough to stir the very sporadic progressive conscience of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has proposed decriminalizing the public possession of small amounts of marijuana. This would, at least, mitigate one of the worst consequences of the stop-and-frisk regime—people, particularly young men of color—are erroneously suspected of carrying illegal firearms but are arrested for drug possession.
Particularly given the consequences that arrests (and possible convictions) have on future employment prospects, this a classic example of the way the War On (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs works in a racist and classist manner. Cuomo's proposal, attacking one particularly egregious consequence of racist stop-and-frisk searches rather than the practice itself, does not go far enough: even if arrest and incarceration aren't involved, humiliating searches of innocent people based on racial profiling are inherently bad. But it is at least a worthwhile first step.
Alas, even not enough is too much for State Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has come out against the marijuana decriminalization, which given the highly top-down structure of the legislatures in Albany is likely to be a death sentence for Cuomo's proposal. Skelos's opposition is an excellent example of the way in which the racist nature of the war on drugs is not only bad in itself but is essential to its perpetuation.
I'll guarantee that Skelos would be a lot more open-minded if young white men in the suburban constituencies he represents were routinely subject to arbitrary searches and arrests for drug possession. Perversely, the race and class targeting of drug law enforcement makes it easier to keep bad laws on the books. This is yet another reason to oppose the current stop-and-frisk search regime altogether.