Is This the End of Stop and Frisk?

Edward Wyckoff Williams
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Stop-and-frisk protest in the Bronx, N.Y., in 2012. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(The Root) — New York City's stop-and-frisk program has exploded by 600 percent under Mayor Michael Bloomberg — garnering outrage from critics who believe that the practice forces black and Latino residents to live under a separate-and-unequal police state, subject to random violations of their Fourth Amendment constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure. Though originally intended to curb gun violence, the program has become carte blanche for New York Police Department officers to racially profile young males in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.

With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, city residents sued the NYPD — seeking justice from those sworn to protect and defend them. In a case specifically focused on the Trespass Affidavit Program, or TAP, which allowed officers to stop and question residents both inside and outside private property (in residences dubbed "clean halls" buildings), plaintiffs argued that the NYPD "has a widespread practice of making unlawful stops on suspicion of trespass."

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The lead plaintiff, Jaenean Ligon, filed suit after her 17-year-old son was stopped for no reason outside his apartment building during a trip to the store to purchase ketchup.

Yes, ketchup.

This week, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin issued an injunction prohibiting NYPD officers from engaging in stop and frisk outside buildings designated by TAP. The facts of the case reveal that patrolling officers never differentiated between potential criminals and citizens. Black and Latino residents were stopped on suspicion of being black and Latino alone.

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In addition to Ligon, other plaintiffs included Charles Bradley, a 51-year-old African-American security guard, who was arrested while visiting his fiancee in the Bronx. Bradley was stopped, frisked, transported to a police station, strip-searched and fingerprinted — all while being asked questions about his potential involvement with guns and drugs.

Abdullah Turner, 24, was arrested while waiting for a friend outside a Bronx apartment building. Turner questioned how he could possibly be "trespassing" if he was outside the building.

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In her injunction order, Scheindlin writes, "While it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the NYPD has systematically crossed it."

The New York Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. holdings include the Fox News cable network and the Wall Street Journal, published a scathing editorial in response to the ruling, asking, "How much blood will federal Judge Shira Scheindlin have on her hands when she finishes dismantling the most effective anti-gun-violence program in urban America?"

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But the editorial writers missed the point entirely.

The NYCLU published a report last year showing that more young African-American men had been subjected to stop and frisk than there were black males living in the entire city. Civil rights activists immediately called for a dismantling of the program, but Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly fiercely defended the practice, claiming that it was central to fighting gun violence in dangerous neighborhoods.

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In 2011, only 10 percent of stops recorded were for "violent criminal activity." Furthermore, though African-American and Hispanic males made up 87 percent of all stop and frisks in the same year, only 1.8 percent of those frisks resulted in a weapon being found.

In fact, the small number of whites stopped were twice as likely to be carrying a concealed weapon. Essentially, in more than 98 percent of all stop and frisks of minority youths, no weapon was found — and yet "guns" remain the justification for the practice.

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Commissioner Kelly has tried to claim that the vast expansion of stop and frisks was responsible for the decline in New York City murder rates. There is, in fact, no such correlation. In 2002, when Kelly took office, 96,296 people were stopped and 587 homicides were reported. In 2011, the NYPD conducted 685,724 stops, and 532 homicides were reported. "There is no evidence that stop and frisk is lowering or suppressing the murder rate in New York City," read a statement issued by the NYCLU.

And New York Gov. Mario Cuomo agrees. In his State of the State address this week, he called for the Legislature to reform the marijuana-possession laws, which — in conjunction with stop and frisk — have been used in a racially disparate way to criminalize minority youths. "It's not fair, it's not right. It must end, and it must end now," Cuomo said.

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From the apartment buildings of the Bronx to the street corners of Harlem, Brooklyn and beyond — black and Hispanic boys tell an eerily similar story.

Zeandre Orr, a 14-year-old black teen from Brownsville in Brooklyn, told WNYC — New York's NPR affiliate — that he was stopped and frisked last year while on his way to McDonald's. And according to analysis conducted by WNYC, one in five of all stops conducted in 2011 were of teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18. When the relationship between police and young brown boys is established so early on, it breeds distrust and encourages apathy and discontent.

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But Scheindlin's ruling may be the beginning of the end of stop and frisk. The TAP case precedes three other challenges currently pending in her court.

This could be the dawning of a new day in which young black boys can walk to a store for ketchup, Skittles and iced tea, or McDonald's and return safely home — unencumbered by the suspicion of others or the harassment and violence that have become all too common.

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Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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