Stop and frisk, the policy that allows police officers to search an individual they deem suspicious, has become a polarizing issue in both the City Council and the neighborhoods of everyday people.
Stand your ground, the Florida law that allows a person who feels threatened to use deadly or physical force against the person deemed as an aggressor even if the “threatened” person was not attacked first or if there is an escape option, has also become an issue.
Legally, the policies are completely different. Stop and frisk is a police initiative to deter crime on city streets and stand your ground is a means of self-defense.
“They are not the same at all, legally,” said Rene Myatt, an attorney who runs her practice out of Hollis. “Other than Trayvon, it’s hard to compare the two.”
But when George Zimmerman pulled the trigger and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, both pieces of legislation were almost instantly lumped together by New York City elected officials and residents on the grounds that they both rely heavily on racial profiling.
“The mayor conveniently left out profiling when he spoke on the Zimmerman case and only discussed guns and gun laws,” said Councilman Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), who sponsored the Community Safety Act, which would amend parts of stop and frisk. “These are issues we have to discuss but I think it’s a slap in the face to the nationwide discussion that’s going on now to veto a bill that has an enforceable ban on profiling based on what has occurred in the past. Mayor Bloomberg, everyone knows that Trayvon Martin was profiled and yet you are standing to veto a bill that is a ban on profiling.”
The Community Safety Act includes two bills. The first would put an inspector general to oversee NYPD stops. The second has come to be known as the racial profiling bill and allows those who feel they were profiled when they were stopped to sue but not for monetary gain.
According to Zimmerman’s lawyers, race played absolutely no role in the altercation between him and Martin. Similarly, the NYPD denies accusations of profiling minorities when they stop and frisk people.
“I think it’s fair to compare the two because race is the underlying element for both of them,” said Queens College political science professor Michael Krasner. “Stop and frisk research that has been done shows it is very much about race and with Zimmerman, he was clearly profiling. He was frightened of black people. There was no probable cause to stop Trayvon that night. He was walking home with candy and a drink. Where in that is probable cause? There is none. He brought the irrationality and he brought the stereotype.”
While the events that unveiled in Florida are still murky, there is plenty of data available on stop and frisk.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union black and Latino New Yorkers make up nine out of 10 police stops and 94 percent of police stops do not uncover any criminal activity.
Mayor Bloomberg has said that these stops are often made based on descriptions but the NYCLU’s data determines that description-based stops make up only 12 percent of all stops
“I would understand if these stops were happening and we were finding guns and making rightful arrests but that’s not the case,” Kenneth Cohen II of the Northeast Chapter NAACP said at a town hall held Tuesday on racial profiling. “Why are we continuing a practice that has proven unsuccessful?”
Under Supreme Court precedent, race can be used as a factor in policing, providing that the authorities demonstrate it is relevant to specific law enforcement goals.
In 2003, historic but ineffective rules were passed by former President George Bush to address racial profiling. While this was the first time racial profiling was limited by the federal government, the rules failed to provide a real enforcement mechanism for federal officials who engage in profiling.
But for people, it is difficult to curb profiling of any kind. It is natural to look at all individuals encountered, process them, judge them and determine if they are a threat or not.
Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing), who voted against both bills in the Community Safety Act, cited this inability to prevent profiling as part of the reason he voted no.
“We cannot change the way people or these officers think,” Reverend Calvin Gibson, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church said. “I will agree with Koo on that but we can control their actions. You can think whatever you want to but you don’t have to act on those thoughts and the way the NYPD has it set up right now, they are racially profiling in their minds and in their actions.”
The town hall was held at Gibson’s church to discuss racial profiling. Two attorneys, including Myatt, and representatives from NYCLU and the NAACP made up a panel of experts and each had almost identical opinions: racial profiling is wrong and stop and frisk has got to go.
“Racial profiling is a policy,” said Victoria Brown, a professor and attorney who has been stopped twice while driving around Jamaica Estates. “We can choose not to combine stop and frisk with racial profiling but that hasn’t happened yet. The idea of a post-racial America is a misnomer.”
Approximately 50 people attended the event and while there was anger towards a handful of city agencies and elected officials — especially Koo and Bloomberg — many were looking for a solution and not a soapbox to stand on.
“Look, I get that there is problems with the police and with racial profiling but to tell you the truth, when I see certain black men in my neighborhood, I’m scared to go over there because I know what they’re doing,” one mother said. “I know the boy down the block is selling drugs but I’m scared to talk to him about it. How do we stop these kids before it gets to the point where they’re stopped and frisked so we don’t have any more of our boys in prison?”
Throughout the room, people shouted out solutions and protests but then a librarian stood up and quietly walked to the front of the room.
“I have worked at the library for some time now and I will tell you that years ago, parents used to take their kids to the library for the day,” she said to a silent audience. “Now these parents send their kids to the library and are walking away from the problem. I drive around at 8, 9, 10 p.m. and those same kids that were in the library are running around the streets or the housing complexes because for them, they’d rather be on the street than at home and the parents prefer it too.”
After the librarian spoke, several people echoed similar thoughts.
“What happened to the village?” one man said. “We need to bring the village back because it’s gone and who is responsible? We are responsible. When I grew up, in my area, there was no nonsense, the adults in the community kept an eye on you as well as their own children but now people do what they want to do and nobody wants to do anything about this problem.”
Although racial profiling may never be solved, many of the panelists stressed the importance of voting in November.
“Yes, we have Obama but there are consequences to that,” Brown said. “We are being poked at, we are being indicted, we are being prosecuted. So make sure you think of that when you go in that voting booth and you pull that lever because if we don’t care, the politicians won’t care.”