Stop and Frisk Racist? Floyd v. City of New York May Force the NYPD to End Discriminatory Practices

On Monday, a federal courtroom in lower Manhattan was packed to the brim, with observers and press spilling into its adjacent overflow room. The opening arguments of Floyd v. City of New York began this week, kicking off an historic civil trial that has the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of black and Latino New Yorkers who the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) argues have been unconstitutionally stopped and frisked by the NYPD on our streets.  

From 2002 to 2011, almost 90% of these stops were of black and Latino residents — and yet guns were found in less than 0.2% of stops, and other contraband found in only 1.7%. Nearly nine out of ten individuals stopped are not engaged in criminal behavior. But as CCR attorney Darius Charney plainly stated in the face of these staggering statistics, this case is "about much more than numbers; it’s about people."

Heidi Grossman, the city’s attorney, was quick to agree. Because blacks and Latinos are disproportionately the victims of crime in the city, she explained, "a disproportionate amount of police resources are distributed to these communities." But Grossman’s attempt to paint an empathetic portrait of NYPD officers was muddled by her insistence on the comparison of quota use to any business trying to evaluate its output and efficacy.

The plaintiffs, she argued, are seeking "to deprive the NYPD of a system of productivity assessment that all employees and businesses use." This perspective felt detached at best. To compare the NYPD’s work on the streets to some kind of sanitized inventory conducted by just any employer fails to adequately acknowledge that NYPD officers are in the business of working with (and arresting) people, not products. Grossman’s "productivity assessment" excuse dehumanizes the distinctly humiliating and traumatic experience of being wrongfully, aggressively stopped and frisked by the police, as CCR’s plaintiffs have attested throughout the week.

CCR and other advocates have consistently argued that these numbers-based mandates from superior officers encourage and even require police to make unnecessary and unlawful stops just to avoid consequences. On the third day of the trial, this phenomenon was confirmed by the testimony of Adhyl Polanco, a whistle-blowing officer who recounted the pressure he experienced to meet quotas.

Charney made clear in his opening arguments that Floyd is not a case that seeks to diminish or hinder the NYPD’s ability to reduce crime, nor does it seek to eliminate stop and frisk as a crime-fighting tool. Rather, the case aims to challenge the means by which the police work toward this objective. Making such stops without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment, and CCR argues that the disparate impact this practice has had on communities of color constitutes a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

CCR does not suggest that the NYPD should cease to deploy large numbers of their officers to high crime areas, but what is done once those officers arrive in these communities must change. By using race as a proxy for criminality, the stop and frisk tactic has effectively alienated thousands of young black and Latino New Yorkers. If this case is indeed about people, as both counsel for CCR and the City seem to agree, it seems undeniable that instilling a distrust and fear of police in an entire generation of young people is indisputably counterproductive to NYPD’s goal of keeping New Yorkers safe.

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Rebecca McCray

Rebecca currently lives and writes in Ljubljana, Slovenia while researching the Slovenian criminal justice system through a grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Previously, she worked with the Criminal Law Reform Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. She has worked as an educator and researcher at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, the Iowa Juvenile Home, Rikers Island, and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, facilitating classes in creative writing, visual art, and debate. Her writing has appeared in the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Full Stop Magazine, Huffington Post, and Salon.com. She previously served as the social justice editor for the blog of the New York Writers Coalition, The Narrator. She is an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Iowa.

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