Unreasonable Suspicion In The Big Apple

Being white and middle-aged places me above suspicion, at least on the streets of New York City.

The streets of New York City are apparently teeming with suspicious people. I am not one of them.

I can wander from one end of the metropolis to the other; nobody is going to stop me. I might loiter in Chinatown, lollygag around Little Italy, hike through Washington Heights, park myself on Pelham Parkway or rock out in the Rockaways. Nobody would care, least of all the New York City Police Department.

Even if I seem out of place, being white and middle-aged places me above suspicion. Don’t take my word for it. You can ask the NYPD.

New York police are on a stop-and-frisk binge under the direction of Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, who once disdained the practice, as The New York Times recently reported. Last year, his officers stopped 685,724 New Yorkers, 88 percent of whom were found to be doing absolutely nothing wrong. That’s nearly 1,900 stops per day, or 78 stops per hour, or – just think about it for a moment – more than one stop for every minute of every day of the year.

Of those stopped, 87 percent were either black or Latino, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

I have never had the experience of having a cop stop me as I walk down the street, tell me to face the wall, and “ask” (though it won’t sound like a mere request) that I empty my pockets. I would be outraged. I would certainly ask why I was being stopped. I would probably ask if I was being arrested. Though I would not physically resist, I might tell the officer the he or she must either tell me that the stop was mandatory or let me go. I know my rights.

But my defiance does not mean I am braver or smarter than the people who are actually stopped every minute of every day on New York City’s streets. It means I am whiter, and as a result, my experiences lead me to respond differently to the police. And, apparently, lead the New York City police to respond differently to me. I invariably find the officers I encounter to be courteous, professional and respectful.

The practice of detaining a citizen and then patting him or her down to check for weapons was upheld in the 1968 case Terry v. Ohio. The Supreme Court determined that such a procedure did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, so long as the police officer had “reasonable suspicion” that the person had committed, was committing or was about to commit a crime, and that the person may be armed and “presently dangerous.” The suspicion, according to the courts, must be based on specific and articulable facts, not merely a hunch.

The “frisk” authorized by the courts is an external pat-down of the outer garments to alert the officer to the possible presence of weapons. Nothing requires a stopped pedestrian to produce identification or even to talk to the police at all. Someone like me can probably engage in such passive resistance and escape unharmed. But in practice, a young man of color exhibiting such defiance in New York City, though within his rights, risks finding himself in a situation that could quickly escalate to dangerous heights.

In 2009, college student David Ourlicht asked to take down the badge and scooter numbers of an officer who stopped and asked him for ID on his way home from school. Ourlicht told the Daily News that, in consequence, the cop threw him against the wall, frisked him, and issued him a ticket for disorderly conduct. Ourlicht fought the charge, which was eventually dropped.

More recently, 19-year-old Brooklyn resident Jasheem Smiley reported that he asked to see a badge when a man claiming to be a cop jumped out of a van and ordered him to get on the sidewalk. The request garnered Smiley a face pressed to the pavement by the officer’s shoe.

City Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn told NPR that the stop-and-frisk policy “creates a culture that’s festering in the NYPD.” He also said that, in practice, it is racial profiling, which certainly seems self-evident in the department’s statistics. Williams, who is black, was himself arrested during a Labor Day parade last September.

That festering culture means black parents must have a serious talk with their sons about how to react if approached by a police officer. It is supposed to be the officer’s job to ensure that everyone stays safe. Instead, New York teenagers are called upon every day to handle themselves with just the right deportment to prevent an armed, trained law enforcement agent from feeling threatened enough to resort to violence. New York asks its nonwhite youths to make the streets safer for cops.

Commissioner Kelly, however, continues to defend the practice. In a recent interview he said: “I think it’s an important tool – certainly not the only tool – that we use to keep this city safe. I think it’s one of the tactics and strategies that helped us reduce murders by 51 percent […] from the decade before.”

The police claim their approach is productive because they very occasionally recover a weapon or make an arrest. Many of these arrests are for possession of trivial amounts of marijuana, which, arguably, shouldn’t be illegal in the first place. The police cannot legally compel people they stop to reveal such possession; that would be the territory of a search, for which they would need a warrant or probable cause. Yet the fact remains that officers often intimidate those they stop into waiving their rights.

Whistle-blowing regarding the illegal use of quotas in the NYPD, first from Adrian Schoolcraft in Brooklyn and more recently from Craig Matthews in the Bronx, has not bolstered the credibility of those arguing that such stop and frisks are proper or necessary. The staggering racial inequality of the stops does nothing for the argument either.

New York’s police can take legitimate pride in the dramatic reduction of the city’s crime in the past two decades. Kelly is utterly wrong, however, in arguing that stopping hundreds of thousands of innocent people has anything to do with reducing crime. He is misguided when he implicitly argues that we should buy safer streets at the price of wholesale violations of young, nonwhite citizens’ rights.

We may not live in a police state, but if you are a young person of color living in the five boroughs, you certainly live in a police city. If people like me had to walk the city’s streets in your shoes, this outrage would soon cease.

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VinnyfromCongers April 20, 2012 at 12:45 AM
So you have a better answer somewhere? The fact is that minorities in NYC commit the majority of crimes. As soon as middle aged caucasians start committing most of the crimes you will then be stopped. Why don't you stick to financial topics? Mr Kelly seems to know what he is doing. Murder doesn't go down 51% by itself.
Walt April 20, 2012 at 01:40 AM
You're an idiot. Schoolcraft blew the whistle on the widespread practice of downgrading complaint reports to lesser crimes which falsely gave the impression that the precinct was safer than it actually was, It had nothing to do with quotas so stop making things up to fit your agenda. What qualifies you to write about police work anyway? In the late '80's and early '90's there were regularly 2000 + homicides per year in NYC today the number is around 500. I guess the thousands "people of color" that are alive today as a result of "stop and frisk" isn't important? Stick to making money from others peoples money.
PC Lover April 20, 2012 at 11:56 AM
Larry you are a CPA and President of your own company. Probably a 1%'er. Very nice for you. Where did you grow up and where do you live now? Where I grew up the decent folks thank G-d for "stop and frisks" because that keeps pressure on the bad guys. But of course all you know about is what you read in the Fancy Pants Ivory Tower Magazine that you choose to pontificate about. Nice for you..
LaMigra April 20, 2012 at 12:43 PM
I live in Yorktown. I don't care what they do in NYC. It's none of my business or Larry's either.
Racman63 April 20, 2012 at 01:33 PM
Disagree with the author if you must, but Mr. Elkin is right. We live in a bifurcated society. If you're black you're more likely to come under the suspicion of the police and be subject to stop and frisk. Under Jim Crow, the rationale that the separation of the races was for "their own safety" somehow lent a moral justification to the custom. Are we not guilty of the same irrational thinking when we say things like, " I guess the thousands "people of color" that are alive today as a result of "stop and frisk" isn't important?" Repression is repression, no matter how you rationalize. Lastly those who "thank god" for stop and frisks "because it keeps pressure on the bad guys" really need to read more history and less fiction. But if you'd like meet somewhere in the middle I'd recommend Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here."
Boron April 20, 2012 at 01:40 PM
The very reason you can walk around Manhattan unharmed is because of the low crime rate generated by the removal of weapons off the street. This is done by stop and frisk. Whether you like it or not, the people who are stopped and frisked are overwhelmingly the ones who are committing the crimes. Who do you think perpetrates most of the crime, middle aged white men? Get a grip, it was people like you who elected Dinkins who had the highest murder rates in the history of NYC. They should erect a statue to Rudy Giuliani at One Times Square.
John J. Timmel April 20, 2012 at 02:23 PM
Neither Mr. Elkin nor Racman63 know what they're talking about. Even if 87% of those stopped are non-white between the ages of 15 and 25, that may have something to do with the fact that 85% of the violent crimes involving guns are committed by non-whites in that age category, not by the Larry Elkins of the world. Male blacks between the ages of 15 and 25 are stopped because statistically they are committing at least 90% of the violent crime involving illegal guns. They are also involved in most of the murders in NYC, including most of the murders of non-whites. The stop-and-frisk program has resulted in the seizure of thousands of illegal guns, not just an occasional few as Mr. Elkin suggests. Don't tell me that those guns would not have been used in the commission of thousands of additional crimes, including homicides, mostly against non-whites. Personally, I'm glad those crimes never took place. ALL children should be told to respect the police and how to properly react if stopped or questioned - not just black children. Lastly, Mr. Elkin, if you were observed by the police parked in a crime-ridden neighborhood in your BMW or your Lexus at, say, 11:00 p.m., you would certainly be asked what you were doing there and probably frisked if you came up with an unconvincing answer. I hope you're good at accounting and financial planning. Stick with it, because your police work is pretty bad.
PC Lover April 20, 2012 at 03:02 PM
Again, guys like Elkin and Racman63 obviously do not live in a neighborhood where it's dangerous to be outside. Nice to be on the outside looking in and pass judgement on hard working cops who walk the beat every day. Or to tell decent folks who maybe can't afford to live in Scarsdale that they should not feel safer when they see the cops checking those young thugs hanging around on the corner for weapons. I wonder what the "stop and frisk" rate is in Scarsdale where these guys live. They wouldn't last a night where most of these stop and frisks are occurring.
Racman63 April 20, 2012 at 03:06 PM
I live in White Plains, a stones throw from downtown. Why don't you keep your assumptions to yourself and stay on point?
PC Lover April 20, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Racman63 is it safe to say that in White Plains there are more stop and frisks on South Lexington down by the projects than in the Highlands? If I am a cop I think I am more likely to run into problems with weapons and drugs down by the projects than in the sleepy bedroom communities. I'm not saying there are not those issue everywhere, but in the projects they bring it to the streets where the cops operate. It's nice to want to blanket the world with warm fuzzy rose colored glasses, but unfortunately cops have to operate in the harsh brightness of reality.
Racman63 April 20, 2012 at 04:26 PM
PC: I'm guessing you live in Westchester. Have you ever gotten caught up in one of those road blocks where the police check for expired inspection and registration stickers? (the Harrison PD is notorious for this practice) While your waiting for your papers to be checked, do you sit there and think to yourself, 'I'm so happy the police are doing this as it will crack down on all those people who think they can get away with driving unsafe vehicles' or do you sit there and steam with anger over this unwarranted imposition onto your right to come and go freely unimpeded by the suspicion that you may have done something wrong? Now imagine the unbelievable anger and humiliation that a young black man must endure when he's stopped, and questioned, and often frisked for having done nothing more than be black. Yes, this is a new Jim Crow, but it's also a form of creeping fascism that we condone by our silence.
PC Lover April 20, 2012 at 06:38 PM
Racman63 that's just the flawed elitist thinking that made Larry open his mouth wide open and insert his foot. For you to compare a traffic checkpoint in Harrison to a stop and frisk on the mean streets of NYC just shows how far out of touch you are from reality. Good luck to you...have fun up in the ivory tower with Larry eating your tea and crumpets. Thank a cop when you can walk the streets with your family and be safe from gang warfare, criminal acts, terrorists and driveby shootings, because believe me, if the cops were not out there keeping the bad guys in check you would be observing a much earlier curfew my friend. I'm done explaining the harsh realities of life to you.
Racman63 April 20, 2012 at 07:48 PM
PC: You're right. It's an insult to Afro-Americans to compare traffic checkpoints to racial profiling/stop and frisk, but I was hoping to somehow get you to empathize with the approximate 12.6% of our fellow Americans who have to suffer these indignities. I'd love to see you present some hard stats that prove that these police methods have reduced crime, any kind of crime. In fact the Center for Constitutional rights states, concerning stop and frisks: Over ten years of raw data from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) reveal that stop-and-frisks result in a minimal yield of weapons and contraband. Moreover, the practice contributes to continued mistrust, doubt and fear of police officers in communities of color that are already scarred by systemic racial profiling and major incidents of police brutality. Facts. Give me facts and numbers and studies.
Ralph Silano April 20, 2012 at 09:37 PM
I could give you some made up facts and numbers, as your group,Center for constitutional rights but my experience with people like you , has proven it to be impossible to validate anything that you would say in response.
PC Lover April 20, 2012 at 10:09 PM
Here's the facts. When you are walking with your spouse and kids through Harlem at 2 am and you see cops rousting a bunch of thugs on the corner who reak of pot and have their baggy pants down around their knees...you, Mr. Racman63, will breathe the hugest sigh of relief ever experienced on this planet. That's a fact. But as long as you stay in Lily White Plains, (where you probably belong), you will never know what that is like.
Racman63 April 20, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Silano: What exactly do mean when you say, "people like you"? You don't know me. Do you always judge people? Is your predilection to judge others that which gives justification to stop and frisk being acceptable in your mind? PCLover: R U from Port Chester? So am I. Born & raised. We probably have more in common then we have in difference. The invective is uncalled for. BUT, it's 7:21 PM and still no one has provided a link that would show any statistical facts to convince me that stop and frisk is an effective police policy.
Walt April 21, 2012 at 12:36 AM
2200+ homicides in 1990 500 homicides in 2012
PC Lover April 21, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Here you go Racman63...today's NY Times: http://projects.nytimes.com/crime/homicides/map Black on Black homicides in the lower socio-economic areas all laid out for you. This is where the stop and frisks occur. I wish it were not so but high flying idealized utopian viewpoints just don't cut it where the rubber hits the road. In addition, the idea that the stop and frisks don't work based on stats is just silly. The perps know they are likely to be rousted so they leave their contraband behind or have others carry and hold. When the threat of stop and frisk is there so they lay low. When there is no threat, there is bedlam. I grew up on the mean streets of NYC, went through NYC public school system, and have been victim of crime. I hope you and yours never have to be on the receiving end of violent criminal activity...then you may think differently.


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