New Yorkers debate ending “stop and frisk”

On June 24, the New York Friends of the People's World hosted a forum on ending "stop and frisk," the policy under which city police routinely stop and search people not accused of any crime. Opponents say the policy has led to racial profiling and an abuse of civil rights.

Speakers at the forum included Harry Levine, Professor of Sociology at Queens College; Lucía Gómez-Jiménez, executive director of La Fuente; and Libero Della Piana, vice chair of the Communist Party USA. Each discussed in depth the ramifications of this policy, which has been enforced especially harshly on the working poor and people of color.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly say the policy works and that it has reduced crime. Statistics prove otherwise. The number of stop and frisks has gone up since Bloomberg became mayor: In 2002, there were 80,176 stops; in 2011, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 685,724 times; and in the first three months of 2012, there were already 203,500 stops. Only 1 to 2 percent of all the stops made have led to criminal arrests.

Governor Andrew Cuomo tried and failed to change one aspect of the policy: the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The State Assembly decided to put off changing this part of the policy to a future date.

There is another question to be asked about this policy, said speakers, and that is the impact on the residents of certain neighborhoods - the Lower East Side, Harlem, Washington Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, Gramercy Park, sections of Greenwich Village. In those communities the policy has been creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear for long-term residents, making it easier to gentrify these neighborhoods.

A speaker noted that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said, "Over the past five years we have re-zoned over 4,000 city blocks in dozens of neighborhoods to allow for growth, and preserve community character where appropriate."

There were questions and comments from the audience and an exchange among the panelists. One participant said that gentrification is going on in her neighborhood, pushing long-time residents out and raising the rents.

Jiménez commented on the escalating numbers, saying, "The civil rights concerns are a lot more important than the small percentage of those who are being fined or arrested." Her group is an umbrella organization that brings together labor and community partners engaged in neighborhood based grassroots organizing around immigrant and worker rights issues.

Panelists and the audience discussed puting pressure on the mayor to end the policy. This, they said, is the opportunity - pointing to the many stories of corruption - to fight for an independent police civilian review board.

Della Piana talked about the parade of police cars - some thirty at a time - that just go around and around in his East Harlem neighborhood. When he asked an officer what was going on he was told, "It's a display of force, we are making a statement that crime isn't welcome in this neighborhood." The speaker commented that among other things, it's a huge waste of resources, which could be used to combate real crime.

Professor Levine pointed out the "terrible effect emotionally and long term it has on these young people. The humiliation - many of these young people are stopped multiple times. And many wind up with permanent criminal records. For example, if a person doesn't report for a court date, a bench warrant goes out and then if stopped again, is jailed."

For most of his career professor Levine has written about drug policy focusing on how the War on Drugs blames poverty and urban decay on low-income black and Latino young people and creates a kind of modern system of Jim Crow.

The question of quotas has also been in the media, which is connected to the stop and frisk policy. Last week in the New York Times, an op-ed piece by a retired NYPD captain pointed to quotas and how each NYPD administration is under pressure to show more arrests than their predecessor. This can only lead to more abuses of the stop and frisk policy.

Opposition to stop and frisk has been growing and culminated in a silent march of hundreds of thousands on Father's Day.

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