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CUNY and the Stop & Frisk Trial: Faculty and Students at Center of Debate

By Ari Paul
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Delores Jones-Brown, a professor of law and police science at John Jay College, speaks at an April 5 press conference outside the courthouse where the NYPD stop-and-frisk trial is being held. Behind her, John Jay students John Cusick and Sally Abdelghafar hold a chart with data on stop-and-frisk.
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Whenever Nicholas Peart got stopped and frisked in his home neighborhood of Harlem, his instinct was to hand the cops not his New York State ID card, but his Borough of Manhattan Community College student card. “I wanted to show them I was in school,” he said. “It’s more credible.”

Peart has made quite a journey over the last few years. From years of being harassed by cops under the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy to penning a passionate op-ed in The New York Times a year ago condemning the practice, he is now playing a key role in a class-action lawsuit on the issue. The trial in Floyd, et al. v. City of New York got underway on March 18, and continued through April.

Unjustified & Unjust

The suit seeks to end what the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents Peart and the other plaintiffs, calls the NYPD’s “policy and practice of unreasonable, suspicionless and racially discriminatory stops” in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The case against stop-and-frisk draws on research by a number of CUNY faculty, and some have testified at the trial.

Critics have long charged that the practice unfairly and illegally targets low-income people of color, noting that 87% of stops in 2012 targeted black and Latino New Yorkers. The NYPD insists that its use of stop-and-frisk is critical to getting illegal guns off the streets –but of more than a half-million stops in 2012, guns were recovered in less than one-fifth of one percent (0.15%). Only 1.3% of all stops found a weapon of any kind, and just 6% of stops resulted in an arrest – including numerous arrests for marijuana possession.

“The data contradicts many of the claims that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD are making,” Delores Jones-Brown, a professor of law and police science at John Jay College, told Clarion. While officials often say that shootings have been greatly reduced by the widespread use of stop-and-frisk, “in fact shootings have fluctuated slightly in an inconsistent pattern but always hovered around 1,800 annually,” said Jones-Brown, who is founding director of John Jay’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice. “The amount of guns recovered annually has followed the same random pattern as shootings, demonstrating neither a steady decline (as the deterrence theory put forth by the department would predict) nor a steady increase (as might be expected from the increased stop activity).”

A former prosecutor, Jones-Brown emphasized that guns are recovered in just a small fraction of a percent of all stops, but those stops “involve hundreds of thousands of innocent people.” Thus, “it is the law-abiding in ten precincts that bear the brunt of this blanket approach to policing – an approach that many of those who experience it find humiliating, agitating and unfair.”

Testimony in the Floyd case has put a spotlight on the institutional practices behind the racial disparities of stop-and-frisk. On March 21, for example, Bronx police officer Pedro Serrano testified that his commanding officer told him specifically to target young black men. In an audio recording played at the trial, the senior officer criticizes Serrano for not performing enough stops, and Serrano asks who else he should be stopping. “I have no problem telling you this,” the officer replies. “Male blacks 14 to 21.”

Eye-Opener

The unfolding trial is certainly an emotional event for people like Peart, a black man who works in a Harlem after-school program, who have spoken out about stop-and-frisk. “It’s been an eye-opener,” he said in an interview. “I have a sense of satisfaction. It’s not one perspective or people complaining. You have NYPD officers talking about illegal practices. It’s good that this is in the open.” Peart told Clarion that the heavy policing of his home neighborhood stands in contrast to the lower Manhattan area around BMCC, from which he graduated in 2012.

On the stand, Peart wept as he recounted being stopped and handcuffed on his way to buy milk for his three siblings, for whom Peart has been responsible for since his mother died of cancer. When he told the police he lived on the block, one officer took his keys and went into the building – apparently to confirm that he really lived there. Peart said he was worried about what might happen because “I had kids in the house, you know, [and] I wasn’t there to take care of that situation of a cop being at the door.”

“I felt criminalized. I felt degraded,” Peart told the court about the encounter. “It was the first time I was ever in handcuffs.... To have my hands put behind my back, I never had that happen before.” Peart testified that he has been stopped and frisked between five and ten times, the first when he was 16 years old.

Speaking outside the downtown courthouse April 5 with other CUNY students and faculty members, CUNY Law student Dawit Getachew recalled his first time being stopped and frisked in Harlem. He was on the phone outside his own home with his brother when two cops asked for his ID, but Getachew, a black man with long dreadlocks, did not have his wallet. One of the officers tried to frisk him, causing Getachew to step back.

Knew His Rights

“I did know my rights, and there was no reason for them to think that I was armed,” he said, adding that his declaration of his rights angered one, of the officers so much he put his hand on his gun holster. “At that moment, it changes everything, because even if you know your rights, at that moment you become scared. You become afraid. I don’t know if this was procedure, but for me, it was intimidation.”

Sally Abdelghafar, an Arab-American student at John Jay, said in addition to seeing someone stopped and frisked about once every three days, she herself has been stopped many times in Harlem where she grew up and still lives. When stopped, she usually tells the officers that she is a John Jay student. “That almost shocks them,” she said.

While being stopped and frisked is a common experience for many CUNY students, they can sometimes be reluctant to talk about it, said John Jay’s Jones-Brown, because of uncertainty about how others will react. When she gave a talk at one CUNY college a few months ago, she said, black male students started describing their own experiences of being stopped by police, but dropped the subject after some classmates were quick to defend the practice. “It was as if [they] needed to apologize for thinking they had a right to be left alone when they weren’t doing anything wrong,” Jones-Brown recalled.

“This trial is an opportunity to vindicate the rights of New Yorkers living in low-income and other neighborhoods in the city,” Jones-Brown added. “It is an opportunity to affirm their rights to safety and civil rights.”

Other CUNY faculty speaking at the April 5 press conference included Tami Gold, professor of film and media studies at Hunter and chair of the college’s PSC chapter, who has directed (with Professor Kelly Anderson) two documentaries on police conduct, Every Mother’s Son and NYPD Blues. Gold said she was there in solidarity with the plaintiffs, and with CUNY students who face illegal stops and frisks.

“As a professor, I owe it to my students to speak out against injustices that affect them, whether it’s immigration reform or stop-and-frisk,” said Gold. “This is a union issue as well,” Gold added, noting that union workers and their families are often the victims of racially discriminatory police practices. The PSC and a number of other NYC unions supported last year’s Father’s Day march against the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies.

Research

Also at the press conference were Harry Levine of Queens College, whose research has highlighted how the racial disparities in stop-and-frisk led to dramatic racial imbalances in marijuana arrest rates, and Eli Silverman, a professor emeritus from John Jay who has studied the effects of “productivity” quotas in the NYPD (see Clarion, September 2012, at tinyurl.com/Clarion-SF1).

When Silverman testified in the Floyd case on April 5, he said his studies have found that NYPD officers reported escalating pressure to make stops. In surveys conducted by Silverman and Prof. John Eterno, a former captain in the NYPD, the proportion of officers reporting “high” pressure to make stops went from 9% before 1995, to 19% during 1995-2001, to 35% in 2002-2012. “The responses we got floored us,” Silverman told the court. “We didn’t expect this level of pressure.” The number of stops also increased, rising from 115,000 in 2001 to 685,000 in 2011. At the same time, Silverman testified, officers reported declining pressure to respect constitutional rights.

False Suspicion

How these pressures result in racial disparities in stops and frisks was illustrated in testimony on April 16, which described how Harlem resident Clive Lino was stopped and frisked when he was standing on the corner with a friend, and engaged in the “furtive movement” of entering the Chinese restaurant behind him. Police officers said Lino “fit the description” of a local robbery suspect: a black male between 25 and 30 years old, and between 5’ 6” and 6’ tall. As the judge in the case pointed out, these criteria describe thousands of people in Harlem.

“Two friends standing waiting for their takeout order outside a restaurant is a completely unremarkable scene in the life of a city,” a CCR statement observed. “But in the eyes of officers working for a ‘performance goals’-obsessed NYPD and armed with an [extremely general] ‘description’...Clive Lino and his friend became suspects.”

Once testimony in the trial is finished, it will be several months before the judge makes a ruling. If the City loses, observers expect it to appeal. Whatever the outcome, the scholarship of CUNY faculty, and the experiences of CUNY students, will remain central to NYC’s debate on stop-and-frisk.

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