On Sunday, civil rights, faith and community groups will hold a silent march in Manhattan to protest the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, which permits law enforcement to confront people at will, question them and pat them down for weapons or drugs.
The march, which will begin at 110th Street between Fifth Avenue and Central Park West, will draw hundreds of diverse community and labor groups, faith organizations and elected officials. It reenacts an earlier march in 1917, when the newly-formed NAACP silently marched down Fifth Avenue to protest race riots and to foment national opposition to lynching. That march, a powerful symbol of justice and strength, was led by W. E. B. DuBois. 95 years later on Father’s Day, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, together with 1199 SEIU President George Gresham and Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network will lead thousands down the same avenue, calling for an end to racially-biased policing.
The NYPD has come under increasing scrutiny for this controversial policy, raising concerns of the discriminatory targeting of minorities throughout New York City. In May, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that there was “overwhelming evidence” that the practice has led to thousands of illegal stops. She granted class-action status to a lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices as being unconstitutional and racially discriminatory; the ruling will allow anyone unlawfully stopped and frisked since January 2005 to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Also last month, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) published a report underscoring the racial disparities that communities of color have long been confronted with: hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers are being targeted and stopped each year by the NYPD, the vast majority of whom are black or Latino.
A significant number of those affected by this practice are immigrants, as immigrants comprise 22 percent and 42 percent of the black and Latino populations of New York City, respectively. Throughout the United States, discriminatory practices like stop-and-frisk are particularly alarming to immigrant communities in light of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) “Secure Communities” program, which identifies and deports undocumented immigrants. For jurisdictions that participate in Secure Communities, local law enforcement is required to provide ICE with the fingerprints of anyone they arrest, regardless of how minor the charges are, and even if no charges are pressed. New York City reenacted Secure Communities last month, despite Governor Cuomo’s decision to withdraw the state of New York from the program. In an email interview, Jacki Esposito, director of immigration advocacy for the New York Immigration Coalition, which is helping to organize the march, stated:
Now that Secure Communities has been activated in NYC, there is an even greater need to end unlawful stop and frisk practices. For immigrant communities, the stakes are higher than ever before because an unlawful stop can lead to arrest, detention and deportation.
The NYCLU report
The NYCLU’s analysis shows that between 2004 and 2011, more than 4 million New Yorkers were targets of street interrogation. Ninety percent of all individuals questioned and frisked were found to be engaged in no criminal wrongdoing and were neither arrested nor ticketed. Furthermore, these numbers are on the rise: Last year alone — the highest year on record for stops — 685,724 people were stopped and interrogated by the NYPD. This is a more than 600 percent increase since 2002, Mayor Bloomberg’s first year in office. In 2011, about 85 percent of those stopped were black and Latino residents — although they comprise only about 23 percent and 29 percent, respectively, of New York City’s total population.
In recent months, the killings of unarmed teens Trayvon Martin in Florida, and Ramarley Graham in the Bronx have drawn national attention to the consequences of racial profiling of youth. According to the NYCLU’s analysis, young black and Latino men bear the greatest burden for racially motivated police stops in New York City. Although they account for only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for over 40 percent of stops last year. Nine of every 10 was found innocent. Even more alarming is that the number of stops of young black men exceeded New York’s entire population of young black men.
The report also reveals that while black and Latino New Yorkers are overwhelmingly more likely to be frisked than whites, they are less likely to be found with a weapon; police found guns, drugs, or stolen property on white suspects about twice as often as they did on black suspects. Overall, for each frisk, a weapon was found only 1.9 percent of the time.
Ultimately, according to the NYCLU’s findings, stop-and-frisk searches have failed to effectively reduce the number of firearms on the streets — the stated rational that justifies the practice. In contrast to the ever-increasing number of stops, the proportion of gun seizures to stops has fallen sharply. The NYPD and Mayor Michael Bloomberg defend stop-and-frisk as a means to fight gun violence, yet the NYPD’s own numbers show the practice to be an ineffective method of keeping firearms off the street. (The figures in the NYCLU’s analysis are culled from NYPD’s full 2011 computerized stop-and-frisk database. Before a State Supreme Court judge ruled in 2008 that the NYPD turn over the database, the police department kept “secret detailed information” regarding the program.)
In short, the NYPD’s policy of racial profiling violates the constitutional rights of New Yorkers — namely, the Fourth Amendment’s unreasonable search and seizure clause, and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. It severely undermines the capacity of communities of color to trust police and has failed to keep neighborhoods safe from gun violence.
The NYCLU and many other rights groups have expressed outrage at these findings. NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn stated:
In nearly every police precinct — black and white, high crime and low crime — black and Latino New Yorkers are stopped and frisked at a far greater rate than whites. Everyone wants to feel safe in their neighborhoods, but the abuse of stop-and-frisk is making communities of color across New York City fear the force that is supposed to protect them.
The NYCLU, in alliance with Communities United for Safer Police Reform, are fighting to pass the Community Safety Act, a series of City Council civil rights bills that would strengthen the definition of discrimination and more effectively ban profiling based on race and gender identity. The legislation would also require NYPD officers to identify themselves and explain their cause when conducting stop-and-frisks or other related police activities.
In an effort to combat the practice, last week the NYCLU unveiled “Stop and Frisk Watch” — a free smartphone app that will enable passersby to monitor and report police activity in an effort to hold the NYPD accountable for unlawful stop-and-frisks.
Stop and Frisk Watch, which is available in English and Spanish, has three main functions: record, listen and report. The app is intended for use while witnessing a police encounter, not by individuals who are the subject of a stop. Incidents that are filmed using the app will immediately be transmitted to the NYCLU. The app also allows people who witness police misconduct to report it, even if they did not film the incident.
On Sunday, immigrant communities and African-American allies who have been disproportionately impacted by discriminatory policing practices will march in solidarity. “Together, we will work to shine a light on mistreatment of our communities by police,” said Jacki Esposito of the New York Immigration Coalition. She added, “Stop-and-frisk, as well as surveillance of Muslim communities, have made many immigrants feel under siege and harassed by the police. We are calling for greater oversight and accountability of the NYPD to begin to restore trust in police.”
Organizers are calling for a silent march to underscore the severity of the threats posed by racial profiling. Benjamin Jealous stated on Democracy Now! last week:
We march in silence to send a very powerful message. We want people, when they see the march … to think about what’s going on. You know, if you chant, if you yell, if you scream, people think about what you’re chanting or yelling or screaming. But when you’re silent, they’re forced to actually focus on … this massive social problem and really interrogate it for themselves.