(Special to The Root) — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently made a disturbing revelation about the New York City Police Department's policy of stopping pedestrians and forcibly searching their bodies for weapons. He revealed that police do not actually expect to find any weapons.
In the wake of new data showing that New York City's stop-and-frisk encounters turned up one gun every 3,000 stops (or 0.03 percent of the time), Bloomberg compared the policy to a highway sobriety checkpoint. He argued that the program acts as a deterrent to crime, so it cannot be judged by its rate of success.
But for the majority of people who walk away without a charge, the experience serves only to undercut trust in the police who are sworn to protect them. The experience is an invasion of privacy, a humiliation and a stinging reminder of how police resources are being diverted away from solving homicides, rapes and other violent crimes to support an ineffective and racially biased practice.
Comparing police officers to officers at a checkpoint is both dangerous and misleading. Sobriety checkpoints are legal only because they are entirely random: Police must stop every car or every second, third or fourth car, and so on. This prevents any danger of profiling drivers based on stereotypes of race, gender and ethnicity.
With stop and frisk, there is no such mechanism in place. More than half of the stops in 2011 were justified in police ledgers as a response to "furtive movements." This ambiguity leaves little room for accountability at any level and significant room to illegally profile.
A recent New York Civil Liberties Union report showed that 87 percent of those stopped by the NYPD were African American or Latino, even though those groups were less likely than whites to be found with a weapon. Ninety percent of African Americans and Latinos stopped were innocent of any legal infraction.
There is no reason that people of color need more deterrence than any other racial group in the city. It would seem that the NYPD is trying to instill more fear in one section of the population over another — a demographic that has less political clout and less means to defend itself from bullying.
Stop-and-frisk policing is, in fact, counterproductive. A healthy police force should be modeled on the image of a police officer walking the beat and interacting with neighbors. But in many New York City neighborhoods, residents live in fear of officers. Between those who get stopped, those who know someone who got stopped and those who read about racial disparities in the newspaper, the program erodes trust in police officers and destroys the valuable relationships between officers and the communities they serve.
Other large cities are effectively cutting crime without resorting to stop and frisk. The violent-crime rate fell 29 percent in New York City from 2001 to 2010, but it also fell 59 percent in Los Angeles over the same time period, 56 percent in New Orleans and 49 percent in Dallas. In these cities, community policing and data-driven methods have proved effective in rooting out crime.
This Father's Day, the NAACP and other civil rights activists, civil liberty advocates and community members will march silently down the streets of New York City to protest stop-and-frisk policing. The tradition of silent marches for civil rights dates back to 1917, when W.E.B. Du Bois and the 8-year-old NAACP marched through New York City to protest lynchings, segregation and race riots in the South.
Silence is a powerful force that, like other forms of nonviolent protest, holds a mirror to the brutality of one's opponents. On June 17 we will hold up a mirror to New York City's stop-and-frisk policy. For more information about the event, visit silentmarchnyc.org.
The NYPD is stopping New Yorkers at higher levels than at any time in the city's history. As the number of stops continues to grow, it will seem more and more as if the NYPD has set up a checkpoint on every corner. That would be an unwelcome development for the nation's most diverse city.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP.
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