Baltimore native Chris Bilal was walking through his adopted Brooklyn neighborhood when he was stopped by a police officer. The NYPD officer peppered the 24-year-old with questions about where he lived, requested Bilal’s ID and rummaged through his bag.
“I was coming home from the Laundromat and I was stopped by the police officer. Asking me, ‘Let me see your ID. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Do you live around here?’ ”
The officer then proceeded to rummage through Bilal’s bag of freshly cleaned and folded laundry to see if he was carrying anything illegal. The search produced nothing, and the officer sent Bilal on his way.
“They were searching for drugs. The funny thing was that it was a mesh laundry bag. I’m not sure what I could hide,” Bilal said.
Bilal, who is African-American, came to New York to follow his dreams of being an artist, but has felt more suspicion than inspiration since arriving a little over a year ago. He is repeatedly stopped on the street, being asked what he’s doing, where he’s going and even, on occasion, being frisked.
“I feel guilty all the time,” said Bilal, an artist and writer. “I feel like I’m being watched and targeted all the time.”
Bilal has been affected by the NYPD’s policy of Stop, Question and Frisk, in which officers randomly stop a person to determine if they are up to any wrongdoing or possess weapons and contraband items.
His experience is all too common, especially among minorities in low-income neighborhoods. In 2011, the New York City Police Department stopped 685,724 people of whom an overwhelming 88 percent were deemed innocent. Backers of the policy say it is an effective tool for deterring crime, which has dropped nearly 80 percent since the Giuliani administration enacted Stop, Question and Frisk in the mid-'90s.
But critics say the price of living in what they consider a police state is too high.
“[NYPD] Commissioner Kelly says he believes that the large number of Stop and Frisk prevents crime, but the data really doesn’t support that,” said Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, professor and director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York. “The overwhelming problem with Stop and Frisk is that many of the people stopped are innocent.”
Jones-Brown has extensively studied the NYPD’s Stop, Question and Frisk practice and co-authored a 2010 report on the matter.
The findings of “Stop, Question and Frisk policing practices in New York City: A primer,” concluded that the number of stops tripled between 2003 and 2009, and a majority of the people stopped were either black or Hispanic.
Those in favor of the practice at City Hall and One Police Plaza say the Stop and Frisk policy is especially effective at getting guns off the streets. And while statistics do show a steady decline in gun violence stretching back several years, an updated version of the primer expected to be released in the coming months shows that in 2011 only 0.4 percent of all arrests during Stop and Frisk were for gun possession. A majority of arrests were due to contraband items, such as drugs and paraphernalia.
A separate detailed report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday shows that of 56 percent of the stops that resulted in a search, only 1.9 percent were found with a weapon.
The study also concludes that while young black and Latino men account for only 4.7 percent of New York City’s population, they accounted for more than 40 percent of all stops in the city.
While this demographic is more likely to be frisked than a young white male, they were less likely to be found with a weapon.
Jones-Brown believes complaints have only made the NYPD more stubborn in its embrace of the policy.
“The requests from the communities where these stops occur have caused him [Kelly] and his supporters to stand behind it more and more. I think it says something bad about police and community relations,” said Jones-Brown.
Local reports also surfaced on Thursday that commanders from every precinct have been ordered by top officials to carefully review all stop, question, and frisk reports to ensure that proper protocol is being used by officers.
Representatives for the NYPD did not respond to requests for comment on this story. But the policy has plenty of support.
“Stop and Frisks are a necessary evil,” said Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, an NYPD union. “A lot of times it’s hard for the general public to understand.”
He said subjects targeted for stops are not merely victims of racial profiling.
“I understand how people may feel the way they do about Stop and Frisk, but what’s always left out of the equation is that we target those that fit a description,” Mullins said. “Our role of stopping someone is based on an incident report from someone in that particular neighborhood.”
Still, Mullins recognizes the policy can have a negative effect on community relations, especially if it is overused.
“The issue shouldn’t be people being stopped,” Mullins said. “It should be the frequency in which it happens.”
Nearly 30 advocacy groups within the city’s five boroughs formed Communities United for Police Reform, with the goal of ending what they consider discriminatory practices by the NYPD.
“It’s not ‘Stop and Frisk’ that’s happening, and it’s not in that order,” said Jose Lopez, who works as a community outreach leader for Make the Road NY, a Brooklyn-based community advocacy group that is part of the coalition. “We are not getting stopped, questioned and frisked. We are getting searched. There’s a difference.”
“Every time I get stopped, I’m not getting questioned first. I’m usually stopped, then searched. I’m usually questioned after they find nothing,” he added.
Lopez, who works with many of the city’s youth, says that the main issue among those stopped is the after-effects and that a stigma among others in their neighborhood that sticks with them.
“It’s that part of being put on display. That looms in the head of all the community members watching, wondering if these kids did something,” he said. “So when that’s not addressed in that moment, it’s left up to an individual to decide on their own without enough information.”
Also a part of Communities United is City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who has been vocal about changing Stop/Frisk policies since he experienced it firsthand while attending the West Indian Day Parade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, this past September during Labor Day.
“Stop and frisk is a good police tool that should be used for the purposes that it was intended,” said Williams, who represents the 45th District in Brooklyn. “What I think is happening now is that it’s being abused in specific communities, specifically black and Latino communities.
“If there is some sort of probable cause, there is reason to stop someone,” Williams said. “But being black or Latino is not a probable cause. “
This past February, Williams introduced three bills before the City Council to try to regulate the rampant use of Stop, Question and Frisk, by increasing police accountability and reducing racial profiling.
Proposed in the three bills are:
- Forbidding police officers to use race, gender, ethnicity or sexual identity as just cause to stop someone on the street.
- Officers would have to make clear to people that they stop, that they do not need consent to a search.
- Officers not on undercover assignments must provide personal business cards to those that they Stop, Question and Frisk.
A council vote on the bills is still pending.
Getting guns off the street and saving lives trumps many of the concerns of the policy’s critics, said City Councilman Peter Vallone.
“I think Commissioner Kelly summed it up best at our last committee hearing. What alternative do you propose?,” said Vallone, who represents Astoria, Queens, and also serves as the chair of the Council’s Public Safety Committee. “No one has an alternative on how to get guns off our streets. What do we do? Wait until a shooting happens or do we try to prevent it?
“We had 800 guns removed from the streets last year. Do you know how many lives that saves?”
The councilman said the fact that black males are being stopped at about twice the rate that they exist in the census is not necessarily cause for criticism. Police should base their decisions on professional observation, not mere census data, he said.
“Doing so would necessitate quotas to make sure everyone was getting stopped at the same rate,” said Vallone, who also co-sponsored a law that banned racial profiling by law enforcement in New York. “What the stops should be compared to is civil observations.”
Vallone also dismisses claims that an arrest rate of 12 percent is too low to consider the practice of Stop, Question and Frisk effective.
“That rate makes absolute sense when it comes to stop and frisk. The stops are based on reasonable suspicion, not probable cause. It would be impossible to get higher numbers based on this,” Vallone said.
While the debate continues, many other American cities have dropped or modified their stop, question and frisk techniques.
In 2011, Philadelphia settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, agreeing to collect more data on Stop and Frisk incidents and to ease up on the practice, refraining from questionable methods.
In 2008, Baltimore settled a suit brought by the NAACP on similar terms. In the consent decree, the Baltimore Police Department agreed to end its policy of Zero Tolerance Policing and to require officers to provide their names and badge numbers to those who make a request while stopped. The proposed measures are similar to Williams’ bill in New York City.
Cincinnati has also agreed to terms for a similar decree filed in Ohio.
In California, the cities of San Diego and East Palo Alto have done away with Stop, Question and Frisk entirely, focusing on more direct engagement with the community and focusing on suspects with probable cause.
While the debate continues in New York as to whether Stop and Frisk infringes on people’s civil liberties, Bilal, and countless others like him, will have to endure suspicion while walking on the street or going to the store.
“I think it’s a big hindrance on a lot of people’s lives and it happens to a lot of people in the community,” said Bilal. “I’m just looked at as a possible criminal. It kind of sucks.”
Bilal, who always admired police officers while growing up in Baltimore, said the feeling of always being under suspicion has left him disillusioned about the Big Apple.
“New York is an idealistic place for me in my mind,” Bilal says. “I kind of aspired to always come here and when I did, I was like, ‘Yes! I’ve finally come here. I can be free. I can write and I can do my art, but it really hasn’t turned out that way.”
This article was written by the author as part of the Henry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship program at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York.