Stop and Frisk and the Coalition for Reform

The Father’s Day march against the stop and frisk practices of the NYPD demonstrated the public’s rising skepticism about the harsh police tactics associated with the war on drugs. The coalition against stop and frisk fuses opposition to racism, the war on drugs, and illegal police searches. Harsh police tactics face a growing and coordinated opposition.

In a dramatic move that reflected the emerging new mood, Governor Andrew Cuomo put together an alliance of law enforcement officials, drug reformers, and civil liberties groups to push for expanding the scope of the law decriminalizing marijuana. If the Republican State Senate relents in its refusal to move on the reform, it would mean thousands of people under 30 would have no criminal record, but instead receive only a summons for a violation.

A criminal offense differs substantially from a violation –– it is the difference between being fingerprinted, held overnight in jail, and having a criminal record and not. A violation is a non-criminal breech of the law. The best-known violations are speeding and drinking from an open container outdoors.

In testimony on June 13, before the City Council voted to support the governor’s proposal, Brian Pearson, a leader of VOCAL-NY, an AIDS advocacy and social justice group that is among those fighting stop and frisk, spoke of his traumatic arrest. As his cousin drove him to work, the police searched them and found that his cousin had a roach. Even though Pearson was clean and everything in the car belonged to his cousin, he spent three days in jail. As a parolee, his freedom was in grave jeopardy and he made three court appearances before the charges were dropped. Should Cuomo’s proposal be enacted, there would have been no arrest, only a summons.

In May, a federal court ruled that the New York City police have a “cavalier” attitude toward carrying out “suspicionless searches.” In her decision, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin did not blame aggressive officers for these unconstitutional stops, but rather police department policies and performance standards.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance made a similar point in his City Council testimony last week, pointing to statistics showing that of 6,170 people in the borough charged with marijuana in public view, half had never been arrested before and 46 percent were between 16 and 24 years old. Many were held in jail before they were able to get before a judge. It was for them, Vance stated, “a cold introduction” to the criminal justice system. For reasons of justice and a reduced workload, he wanted these offenses decriminalized and welcomed the City Council’s support.

The DA’s acknowledgement that half of its marijuana cases were first-time offenses casts doubt about the NYPD and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s justifications for the stop and frisk policy. Are the blacks and Latinos arrested for marijuana more often than whites more apt to break the law or just more apt to be arrested? Do police tactics make their neighborhoods look bad and lawless? Police searches –– leading to marijuana arrests –– create the facts supporting the argument that minority youths are criminals.

Last year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, there were 50,684 marijuana arrests in New York City, 85 percent of them among blacks and Latinos, most of them under 30. If these arrests were decriminalized, the crime rate in New York City could drop with no danger to the public. The struggle against stop and frisk involves much more than the safety of young people from invasive police tactics. It involves the image of demographic groups in the city and whether the city feels like a safe place. Stop and frisk tactics exaggerate the number of crimes recorded while undermining the city's tranquility by dividing communities from one another.

Bloomberg defends the current practices, and he has some allies among the black clergy. While the marchers were silently walking toward his mansion, he was speaking to the Christian Cultural Center, the largest church congregation in New York City. It’s well worth noting that in a 2009 story about the mayoral election, the New York Times reported that A. R. Bernard, the church’s minister, is on the board of the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

“In 2006, the administration agreed to sell parts of two streets that had been taken off the city’s maps to the Christian Cultural Center,” the Times reported. “That helped Mr. Bernard assemble a large parcel of land around the church that he plans to use for an ambitious mixed-use project of city-subsidized housing and commercial space.” The church on its website proclaims that its “campus” is 11 acres.

The Mayor insists that police stops keep guns off the street and keep crime down. He disputes Judge Scheindlin’s conclusion that it is police policies and the lack of respect shown by officers making the stops that cause the problem.

Stop and frisk is more than a legal issue. It will become an increasingly pivotal question in city politics as next year’s race for mayor takes off for real.