Andrew, a 23-year-old Queens resident, recalls vivdly what it was like to be stopped by officers as a high school student.
“There have been a few times when cops cleared us out of an area,” he said. “Mostly this was in high school when we would be waiting for a friend in front of a bodega or something but there was one night in particular that stands out.”
Andrew, who asked that his last name not be used, and three friends were on their way home from seeing a movie when they were stopped by police.
“We got off the bus and were trying to figure out if we were going to just go home or get something to eat when these cops showed up,” he said. “There were two of them and they pulled their car up and asked us what we were doing so I told them and they searched us anyway. I kept telling them that we weren’t doing anything but they kept telling me and my friends to shut up and that they were looking for some guy who matched our descriptions.”
Andrew and his friends, all of whom are black, were free to go after officers searched them but he still feels race played a major role in the incident.
“If they had spent even a minute looking at us, they would’ve known right off the bat that we weren’t doing anything,” he said. “They acted before they knew and I don’t like to pull this card a lot but I think being black played a role. It definitely played a major role.”
The role race plays in the controversial NYPD practice, stop and frisk, has been brought into question frequently over the years. The procedure that allows officers to stop, question and search any individual they deem suspicious has been hailed both as a anticrime miracle and abhorrent abuse of civil rights. On Wednesday, the City Council voted on two bills that would amend the practice in a way it has never been amended in the past.
The two bills, referred to informally as the inspector general bill and the racial profiling bill, comprise the Community Safety Act and has been the subject of debate since it was introduced by Councilman Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) in the fall.
“No one is saying eliminate stop and frisk but we do want to amend it,” Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), who voted for both bills, said. “The issue is with how people are being treated.”
The inspector general bill would open a new positon in the department that would oversee all stops made.
“Putting an inspector general in place is an unnecessary spending of money,” Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who voted against both bills, said. “Instead of spending money on another layer of bureacracy, maybe we should use that money to hire more cops.”
Though many have critiqued the inspector general bill, the racial profiling bill has caused the most controversy.
This bill adds onto the existing racial profiling bill by expanding who can be profiled and allows individuals who feel they have been profiled can sue but not for monetary gain.
“We have to educate voters and Council members because this will lead to the courts taking over the police department and that is something I cannot stand for,” Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), who voted against the bill, said. ”Now are there bad cops? Absolutely, I’ve prosecuted bad cops in the past. There are problems but this is not the answer.”
Both bills were voted through by the City Council last Wednesday. The racial profiling bill was passed 34-17, just enough to overide a mayoral veto. Bloomberg does intend to convince the one Council Member needed to flip, thus killing the bill.
“If these bills pass, we will become Chicago or Detroit,” Vallone said. “This is a fight for the lives and safety of our kids and our city.”
While the Council vote is enough, if it holds, to override Bloomberg, the billionaire has vowed to do everything in his power, with the help of Police Comissioner Ray Relly, to sway the one council member needed to allow an override.
Bloomberg’s tactics have led to heavy criticism. Most recently, on his morning show, the mayor commented on stop-and-frisk data he believes has been twisted by Community Safety Act supporters to make it seem as though officers unfairly stop minorities more than white people.
“There is this business, there’s one newspaper and one news service, they just keep saying, ‘Oh it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group,’” he said on his radio show last Friday. “That may be, but it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murder. In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”
Council members and activist groups by and large criticized the mayor for his statements.
“For him to say that shows that he’s not reading the bill and is only using his own small-mindedness to focus on what he thinks is right,” Comrie said. “He’s not dealing with the reality here and for him to say what he said shows that he really needs to spend more time refocusing his whole opinon-making process.”
Since making the comments, the mayor has not apologized but rather continued to support his claim.
According the New York Civil Liberties Union, out of the 97,296 stops made by officers in 2002 — the year the practice was implemented — 82 percent of the cases were innocent.
The number of stops continued to rise through the years and yet at any given time, no less than 86 percent of stops resulted in an arrest, a found weapon or a fine.
In 2012, the number of stops dropped dramatically from 685,724 in 2011 to 532,911 but the number of innocent stops rose from 88 to 89 percent.
Despite the rise in percentage, the number of white people who were stopped in 2012 rose slightly, leading some to believe that the NYPD is cleaning up its act.
According to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s office, the likelihood a stop of an African-American New Yorker yielded a weapon was half that of white New Yorkers stopped. The NYPD uncovered a weapon in one out of every 49 stops of white people. In comparison, only 1 in 57 stops of Latinos and 61 stops of African Americans produced any kind of contraband.
“While I grew up trusting police officers, there are communities who don’t feel the police are on their side,” Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) said. “Every African American that I know has been stopped or has a family member that has been stopped and there is something wrong with that. We want to address that issue.”
“I can absolutely see that in other areas the police may be rougher,” Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), who supports the inspector general bill but voted down the racial profiling bill, said. “In this area, I am thrilled with our police captain. I feel safe here and I want to continue to feel safe and I am afraid that if the profiling bill goes through, crime will get bad again.”
What’s more, those who opposed the bills have said that the high percentages are due to crime statistics.
“The mayor and some Council members have said more people of color are stopped because they matched certain descriptions but only 16 percent of stops are based on descriptions of a person,” Johanna Miller, the interim advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said. “The numbers do not balance out at all. If they did, 80 percent of the people being stopped would not be walking away without a fine or arrest.”
While the debate remains heated and outcries from either side continue, the mayor only has 30 days to veto and convince enough Council members to change their mind.
“The mayor and police commissioner have put out a lot of lies,” Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said. “These bills are going to improve policing and improve relations with the community being policed. I have been stopped a couple of times because of my sexual orientation even though I show them my credentials. We’re not making this stuff up.”
The NAACP has come out in support of both bills but feels it’ll take more than legislation to improve relations between the police and certain communities.
“It’s going to take a lot of work, and the NAACP has met with Chief [Phillip] Banks [III] and we are working towards certain goals,” Kenneth Cohen, a representative from the NAACP, said. “We are willing to sit at the table but if the cop isn’t willing to sit, it’s going to be hard to get people to trust their police officers.”
“I don’t see why it has to be one or the other,” Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) said. “We should be able to have stop and frisk without going against a person’s civil rights. I’m not saying it’s not a useful tool but it needs to be fixed.”
What it will take to improve community and precinct relationships without forgoing crime prevention is unclear though many Council members suggested things like sensitivity training and placing more veteran cops in high-crime areas.
“The main problem is the way people are being treated,” Comrie said. “The people feel like they are disrespected and that the police have created a hostile environment. It’s not whether or not stop and frisk is a bad tool, it’s the way people are treated in the name of stop and frisk.”