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New Yorkers Weigh Safety and Harassment in ‘Stop and Frisk’ Police Policy

August 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A federal judge declared that New York City's "Stop and Frisk" policy unfairly targets minorities, but New York's police commissioner says "race is never a reason to conduct a stop." Special correspondent William Brangham talks to New Yorkers who support the tactic, as well as citizens who have been targeted who say otherwise.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn now to the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk program, a policy that a federal district judge yesterday said unfairly targets minorities.

NewsHour special correspondent William Brangham spoke with New Yorkers about the ruling and how the program has impacted their communities.

Here is his report.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It was the middle of a summer night, seven years ago, on New York City’s Upper West Side. Nicholas Peart was out celebrating his 18th birthday with a friend and a cousin. They’d gone to get a burger at the local McDonald’s, but it was closed, so they sat down on this bench. That’s when the trouble started.

NICHOLAS PEART, plaintiff: Suddenly, and out of nowhere, these squad cars, three squad cars pull up to us. And cops came out of those squad cars and demanded that we get on the ground.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But you weren’t doing anything wrong?

NICHOLAS PEART: Wasn’t doing anything wrong. We had not been drinking. We hadn’t been doing anything but sitting on the benches late at night.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nicholas is now 24, a college graduate and working for a nonprofit group in Harlem. He says he’s been stopped maybe 10 times in his life, he says all of them for no reason. He says he’s never been arrested, never been charged with any crime at all.

NICHOLAS PEART: I have pretty much lost track of how many times I have been stopped. It’s sort of like rites of passage for a lot of black and brown boys in different neighborhoods around the city.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: How many times have you been stopped by the police?

DAVID OURLICHT, plaintiff: Well in the double digits, like three, four times a year.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Twenty-five-year-old David Ourlicht, also a college graduate who’s now applying to law school, says he’s also lost track of how many times he’s been stopped and frisked by New York City police officers.

DAVID OURLICHT: A lot of these stops have been me walking home from school when I was going to St. John’s, or me helping a friend move, or just me walking outside my house.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: How do you explain that?

DAVID OURLICHT: How do I explain being — I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Both of these men were among the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit brought against the city of New York’s stop and frisk policy.

DAVID OURLICHT: When I got the call this morning, the first thing I did was cry.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yesterday, a federal district court judge ruled that police officers in New York City have for years been unfairly stopping young minority men without reasonable suspicion that those men were doing anything wrong.

Judge Shira Scheindlin said New York’s stop and frisk policy violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and amounted to racial profiling. “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life,” the judge wrote.

“During these stops,” she added, “minorities were more likely to be subjected to the use of force than whites, despite the fact that whites are more likely to be found with weapons or contraband.”

While not banning stop and frisk outright, the judge ordered a series of changes. Officers in some precincts will now wear mini-cameras on their vests to document encounters. She ordered a series of community meetings to get input about possible changes to the policy, and she appointed a federal monitor to oversee those changes.

The judge’s ruling prompted an angry response from New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

RAYMOND KELLY, New York City Police Commissioner: What I find the most disturbing and offensive about this decision is the notion that the NYPD engages in racial profiling. That simply is recklessly untrue.

We do not engage in racial profiling. It is prohibited by law. It is prohibited by our own regulations. We train our officers that they need reasonable suspicion to make a stop, and I can assure you that race is never a reason to conduct a stop. The NYPD is the most racially and ethnically diverse police department in the world.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At the same news conference, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said stop and frisk has played an important role in the city’s dramatic reduction in violent crime, including murder, since the practice began a decade ago.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, New York City: Every day, Commissioner Kelly and I wake up determined to keep New Yorkers safe and save lives. And our crime strategies and tools, including stop, question, frisk, have made New York City the safest big city in America.

In fact, murders are 50 percent below the level they were 12 years ago, when we came into office, something no one thought possible back then. Stop, question, frisk, which the Supreme Court of the United States has found to be constitutional, is an important part of that record of success.

It has taken some 8,000 guns off the street over the past decade and some 80,000 other weapons.

SHENEE JOHNSON, mother of victim: Kedrick was an innocent kid that got caught in the crossfire.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Shenee Johnson lives in Jamaica, Queens, the same neighborhood where David Ourlicht says he was stopped and frisked several times. She wants the police to treat everyone fairly, but she wishes stop and frisk was even more vigorously enforced. Had it been, she thinks it might have saved the life of her 17-year-old son, Kedrick. He was shot and killed at a party three years ago.

SHENEE JOHNSON: If the murderer, the guy that killed my son, was stopped and frisked, he might have — Kedrick might be alive today.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Johnson believes the views of people like her, people who have seen the impact of violent crime up close, are often ignored in the debate over the constitutionality of stop and frisk.

SHENEE JOHNSON: Complaining is easy, but just sitting back and doing nothing, that’s a whole other thing. You do have a lot of cases where the police department have gone overboard, but, like I said, it’s all about communication, being fair to the people, not taking people rights away, but at the same time protecting the innocent ones like Kedrick.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Defining what’s fair and what’s effective, balancing public safety with individual rights is the heart of the debate over stop and frisk.

Critics point out that only a very small percentage of stop and frisk actions result in the seizure of weapons or drugs or other contraband. For example, this study showed that for the hundreds of thousands of stops that occurred in 2008, only 6 percent resulted in arrests. Under 2 percent yielded any contraband. And only about one-tenth of 1 percent of stops turned up guns. More recent data showed similar results.

Despite that, the number of stop and frisks have gone up significantly since the program began. The city counters by saying that the number of stop and frisks have dropped sharply in the last year after new training was given to officers about what constitutes reasonable suspicion for stops and searches.

Mayor Bloomberg says the practice has taken thousands of guns off city streets, and, he argues, the very existence of the program discourages would-be criminals.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Today, we have the lowest percentage of teenagers carrying guns of any major city across our country, and the possibility of being stopped by — acts as a vital deterrent, which is critically important by — a critically important byproduct of stop, question, frisk.

The fact that fewer guns are on the street now shows that our efforts have been successful, and there is just no question that stop, question, frisk has saved countless lives. And we know that most of the lives saved, based on the statistics, have been black and Hispanic young men.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The mayor and the police chief both argue that stop and frisk is an essential part of their — of them doing their job of keeping New Yorkers safe, and they say that stop and frisk might be hard for a lot of young men who get caught up in this, but that that’s an OK price to pay for the drop in crime. That’s their argument. What do you make of that?

NICHOLAS PEART: I think the crime rate is down in all the major cities, you know, without stop and frisk. I think it’s important to note that these are not just minor inconveniences. It’s not just minor inconveniences. These are — these stops are very hostile. It’s very damaging to the community.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: David Ourlicht, the young man who’s lost track of how many times he’s been stopped by New York City police, says these experiences have poisoned his relationship with authority, and he says it’s done the same for thousands of young men in the city.

DAVID OURLICHT: I think that that creates distrust within the community, because I think these communities, like, yes, we all want safe things, but I also don’t want my son or my child or my uncle or my niece or my nephew or anybody in my — or family and friends to have to be abused.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Mayor Bloomberg, the man who presides over the nation’s biggest city, says that putting restrictions on stop and frisk poses its own dangers. He says citizens shouldn’t feel like targets of the police, but they also shouldn’t be victims of violent crime.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mayor Bloomberg also vowed the city would appeal the judge’s ruling.