The Stop and Frisk Dilemma

Dilemma: (noun) [dih-lem-uh] a situation requiring a choice between two equally undesirable outcomes

The federal class action lawsuit, Flovd, et al vs The City of New York, et al, is giving Mayor Michael Bloomberg a major headache, or at least it should. That’s due to good organizing on the part of Communities United for Police Reform, and the brilliant legal minds at the Center for Constitutional Rights. As far as I’m concerned, those groups are heroes, not just of New York, but of every other community in the country plagued by racial profiling and stop and frisk harassment by law enforcement.

On the racial profiling/stop and frisk tip, the City of New York created their own problems. In the past decade, the NYPD has conducted about 5 million stops. Yup, that’s 5 million. More than 85 percent of the stops in most years have been of blacks and Latinos. Only about 12 percent have resulted in arrests.

One outcome of all that stopping and frisking is that today, more than half of all black men in New York have had at least one such encounter with the police. So much for Officer Friendly.

If they are following the letter of the law, NYPD officers had “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity in all of these cases. But as the District Court Judge, Shira Sheindlin said in court,

“You reasonably suspect something and you’re wrong 90 percent of the time…That is a lot of misjudgment of suspicion..”

Actually, that’s an 88 percent error rate.

Imagine you work at MacDonald’s and you burn burgers 88% of the time. Or you work in a blood bank and you mislabel blood types 88 times out of one-hundred. Do you imagine yourself keeping that job? Yet, the NYPD has done little to correct this problem, nor demonstrated much concern about the impact of all those mistaken stops on the attitudes of black and brown people regarding law enforcement — as in, that there is a broad based perception in many communities of color that in order to protect and serve some people, the police view other people as the enemy, and the filter by which these judgments are made is race. That looks to me like a downward spiral of negative outcomes headed in the general direction of crisis.

There’s no documentation of overt racism, at least not to my knowledge, and demonstrating overt racial animus is, unfortunately, the federal standard that the City appears to be taking refuge behind. But, regardless, the pattern of arrests kind of make race pop out at you, something Judge Sheindlin seems to have noticed. In response, the City’s attorney Heidi Grossman warned, “You’re speculating what the reason is.” And then according to a New York Times story, Grossman posited a possible alternative cause. She suggested that all those improper stops could just as easily have been mistakes, resulting either from what we are left to deduce is widespread procedural incompetence within the NYPD, or an equally widespread problem of NYPD officers misunderstanding the law. Not, of course, of how these efforts are targeted. That would be an admission of profiling.

Now that’s a serious stuck-between-a-rock-and-a hard-place dilemma to find yourself in if you’re Mayor Bloomberg. Either the NYPD considers race an indicator of criminality (or lack thereof as expressed in the disproportionately low numbers of stops of East Asians and whites), or the NYPD is just incompetent. So incompetent, in fact, that over ten years they tried 5 million times to get something right, and only succeeded about 12 percent of the time, and a bunch of those times, all they found was some marijuana. If that’s what they were after, they would probably lower their error rate by moving their operation to a local university campus on a Saturday night.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

2 replies on “The Stop and Frisk Dilemma”

While racial bias is as obvious in the stop-and-frisk issue as if it were a neon sign, none the less I am very troubled by its use as the primary weapon in attacking the policy and the NYPD. The obvious quick-fix to apparent racial bias is to stop a large number of young people of European and Asian descent in order to round out the numbers. It seems to me the proper ground on which to attack this noxious policy is to advocate a re-definintion of “reasonable suspicion” to make it meaningful and substantive. Recognize it as a form of at least temporary arrest and create standards to which each officer is held from each occasion. Failure to follow standards would amount to false arrest and consequent liability. The police, of course, will object that this is hindering law enforcement. Such objections are to be expected whenever the police are held accountable and must be discounted. There is also a political aspect to the matter. Elect an anti-Bloomberg mayor and FIRE Ray Kelly for starters. Kelly’s facist policies have turned New York into a police state and the NYPD into an occupying army with overtones of the infamous “Stassi” of East Germany

I hear you, and I think that in theory what you suggest raises important points. We always need to be thinking in terms of solutions that actually protect everyone. However, while I would never support such a change, if the NYPD started targeting East Asian and white young people for stops, I think that change would end up being a solution. Suddenly, the problem with the NYPD’s definition of “reasonable suspicion” would become obvious to the constituencies that actually matter to the City.

My point is that the current policy relies upon the broad public going along with it because it comports with existing cultural stereotypes.

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