Commentary: Stop-and-Frisk’s Swinging Pendulum

A judge's decision reveals the expanding opponents to the New York Police Department's program of detaining Black and Latino young people.

Posted: 01/09/2013 04:45 PM EST

In a somber, silent march down New York City’s Fifth Avenue last summer, thousands of people walked to protest the New York Police Department’s practice of stop-and-frisk. It was a procession that included a wide swath of critics, from teachers and parents to local activists and civil rights groups, most notably the NAACP.

For a while, it seemed that the dominant voices speaking against the practice of stopping young African-American and Latino youth were in the civil rights community. But what has become clear is that the world of opponents has expanded widely, stretching to prosecutors and even judges.

That was underscored this week when a federal judge ruled that New York’s stop-and-frisk violated the constitutional rights of those who were detained by police, focusing on a section of the Bronx.

“While it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the NYPD has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops,” said Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan.

That decision followed a policy switch last fall, when the Bronx district attorney’s office told the New York Police Department that it would no longer prosecute people who were stopped unless the arresting officers could prove that the arrests were necessary.

And so, at long last, the pendulum is beginning to swing, with opposition to stop-and-frisk coming from entities that can well take the teeth out of this atrocious program that does little beyond humiliating young people of color.

Although the practice has been staunchly defended by New York City’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a significant tool in fighting crime, the statistics portray it as something different. In 2011 alone, roughly 700,000 New Yorkers were stopped by police, the overwhelming majority of them Black and brown and virtually all of them innocent of any crime.

The anecdotes of these young men are often disturbing and chilling. They offer reminiscences of heading home from school or engaging in discussions with friends when they are stopped and, essentially, accosted by police officers. A young man need only sit on a bench outside his apartment building to be stopped by police, slammed against a wall and have his belongings rummaged through.

There is one thing that is perfectly clear: Stop-and-frisk is at its core an embarrassing and degrading experience that is largely confined to the world of African-American and Latino men in New York City.

It is a practice that belittles people and develops even deeper suspicion between the police and the people they are sworn to protect. Moreover, it is heartening that others are seeing the practice for the horrific practice it truly is.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

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