As courtroom drama goes, the one currently underway in Manhattan is as unusual as it is historic. Day after day, courtesy of a federal court, the world is learning in stark, unobstructed clarity the heinous practice of the New York City Police Department that is commonly known as stop and frisk.
For weeks now, there has been a cavalcade of witnesses who have together lifted the veil off of the technique of policing that has become the rule of law in New York City. Every year hundreds of thousands of young men -- nearly all of them African-American and Latino – are routinely stopped by police officers.
The intention, police say, is to deter crime before it moves from contemplation to execution. In fact, it is indistinguishable from unabashed racial profiling. It has become painfully commonplace for young men of color to be stopped for doing nothing more than standing in front of a building, sitting in a park, walking to the subway from a rehearsal at school or from church, only to be detained by police, who rummage through their clothing and treat them with derision.
The trial is a result of a class action suit that was filed by four plaintiffs who had been stopped by New York City police – some of them more than once. They contended that the practice was indistinguishable from racial profiling and they are asking the courts to order the police department to reform its practices.
The proceedings have produced some illuminating moments. In one piece of testimony, a police officer testified that he taped his superiors in a South Bronx station agreeing on quotas on people to be stopped and frisked.
On another day of testimony, a police officer produced a recording of a commanding officer making clear that the cops on the beat were to look specifically for the “the right people.” The recording, which was secretly made, offered a clear description of who the commander was referring to. “I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this: male blacks 14 to 20, 21,” the commanding officer said.
And so, the testimony continues. None has been more heartbreaking than the appearance of Nicholas Peart, a 25-year-old African-American man who has been stopped and frisked twice. Peart began caring for his three siblings after their mother died of cancer two years ago. He said that being stopped by the police was a humiliation that made him feel “degraded” and “criminalized” for doing nothing other than being in the neighborhood where he lives.
The New York Police Department and the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has presented its own take on this practice, saying that the policy has helped the murder rate decline in New York, which it concludes, has resulted in a higher life expectancy. So, too, would locking New Yorkers in neighborhood cells for 18 hours a day, but that’s hardly a reasonable solution.
The trial is far from over and more sparks are sure to be produced. But, no matter how it concludes, it will forever make clear that this policy needs to end once and for all.
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(Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)