Stopped, Frisked and Angry


Photo by EKavet

An earlier version of this story was originally published on

Baltimore native Chris Bilal was returning home from the laundromat in 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.

“(He asked me) 'Let me see your ID. Where are you from? Do you live around here?'” Bilal recalled.

The search of Bilal's bag of freshly cleaned and folded laundry was just as methodical. The search produced nothing, and the officer sent Bilal on his way.

“They were searching for drugs,” said Bilal. “The funny thing was that it was a mesh laundry bag. I'm not sure what I could hide.”

The not-so-funny thing: it wasn't the first time. Bilal, an African American who moved to New York a year ago to pursue a career as an artist, says he is repeatedly stopped, questioned—and on occasion, frisked—by New York City police.

“I feel guilty all the time,” he said. “I feel like I'm being watched and targeted all the time.”

Bilal is just one of the faces hidden behind the statistics of the New York Police Department (NYPD) controversial Stop, Question and Frisk policy, in which officers can make random stops if they have reason to suspect an individual possesses weapons, drugs or contraband—or may have been guilty of a crime.

In 2011, the NYPD stopped 685,724 people—of whom an overwhelming 88 percent were deemed innocent.

Deterring Crime

Supporters of the policy say it is an effective tool for deterring crime, and for proof they point to the city's steep drop in criminal activity over the past decade—one of the steepest in the nation.

Skeptics, however, including prominent criminologists, argue the Stop, Question and Frisk policy, first launched in the mid 1990s by the administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, .was only one of many factors in the city's crime decline—and was most effective when it was linked to aggressive strategies that targeted specific known high-crime areas and individuals.

“[NYPD] Commissioner Kelly says he believes that the large number of Stop and Frisks prevents crime, but the data really doesn't support that,” said Prof. Delores Jones-Brown, 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 co-authored a 2010 report on the NYPD's Stop, Question and Frisk policy.

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.

Nevertheless, police and city officials say the practice has been especially effective at getting guns off the streets.

However, while statistics do show a steady decline in gun violence stretching back several years, an updated version of Jones-Brown's study expected to be released soon shows that in 2011 only 0.4 percent of all arrests during Stop and Frisk were for gun possession.

A majority of the arrests concerned possession of contraband items, such as drugs and drug paraphernalia.

A separate detailed report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union last week shows that of 56 percent of the stops that resulted in a search, only 1.9 percent were found with a weapon.

Racial Impact

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 they were more likely to be frisked than young white males, the study also shows 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 (NYPD Commissioner Ray 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 last week 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.

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment on this story. But the policy has plenty of support from the rank-and-file.

“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 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 (with) which it happens.”

City-Wide Coalition

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,” Lopez said. “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, a youth worker, says that young people who are stopped are most concerned that it gives them an undeserved reputation in their neighborhoods as suspected criminals—a stigma that never quite goes away.

“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 at that moment, it's left up to an individual to decide on their own without enough information.”

Another member 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 annual West Indian Labor Day Parade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, last September. “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 added. “But being black or Latino is not a probable cause. “

Regulating Stop and Frisk

In 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.

The bills propose:

  • Barring police officers from using race, gender, ethnicity or sexual identity as a just cause to stop someone on the street.
  • Requiring police to inform every individual stopped that he or she can refuse to be searched..
  • Requiring all officers not on undercover assignments to give their personal business cards to anyone stopped under the policy..

A council vote on the bills is 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. (He said) 'What alternative do you propose?,” commented 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 conceded that a disproportionate number of black males are being stopped compared to whites, but he argued police should base their decisions on professional observation, and not worry about statistical comparisons.

“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 the relatively low arrest rate of 12 percent proves Stop, Question and Frisk is ineffective.

“That rate makes absolute sense when it comes to stop and frisk.” He said. “The stops are based on reasonable suspicion, not probable cause. It would be impossible to get higher numbers based on this.”

Other Cities Reconsider

While the debate in New York 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 (ACLU), 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 lawyers wrangle in New York over whether Stop and Frisk curtails civil liberties, Bilal, and countless otherss like him, must think twice every time they see a police officer approaching them on the street: are they going to be treated as innocent civilians or potential lawbreakers?

“It kind of sucks,” said Bilal.

Bilal admired police officers while growing up in Baltimore. But the feeling of always being under suspicion has left him disillusioned about the Big Apple.

” “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,'” he said.

“It really hasn't turned out that way.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Fox, and a 2012 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Reporting Fellow. This article was written as part of the HF Guggenheim Fellowship program operated by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in New York. He welcomes comments from readers.

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