An exclusive audio recording obtained by The Nation of a stop-and-frisk carried out by the New York City Police Department reveals the humiliation and degradation caused by broken windows policing strategies which are being implemented in urban areas throughout America.
The day after The Nation published this video, it sparked a heated debate during a meeting of the City Council’s public safety committee. Since then, the New York Police Department’s stop, question and frisk tactic gained national notoriety and became a major factor in the city’s 2013 mayoral race. Footage and audio from this video were incorporated into a PSA video by the artist Yasiin Bey, and, perhaps most significantly, and the video was mentioned in the August 2013 decision of the landmark federal case Floyd v. City of New York, which found stop and frisk to be unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.
On June 3, 2011, three plainclothes New York City Police officers stopped a Harlem teenager named Alvin and two of the officers questioned and frisked him while the third remained in their unmarked car. Alvin secretly captured the interaction on his cell phone, and the resulting audio is one of the only known recordings of stop-and-frisk in action.
In the course of the two-minute recording, the officers give no legally valid reason for the stop, use racially charged language and threatened Alvin with violence. Early in the stop, one of the officers asks, “You want me to smack you?” When Alvin asks why he is being threatened with arrest, the other officer responds, “For being a fucking mutt.”
Later in the stop, while holding Alvin’s arm behind his back, the first officer says, “Dude, I’m gonna break your fuckin’ arm, then I’m gonna punch you in the fuckin’ face.”
“He grabbed me by my bookbag and he started pushing me down. So I’m going backwards like down the hill and he just kept pushing me, pushing me, it looked like he we was going to hit me,” Alvin recounts. “I felt like they was trying to make me resist or fight back.”
Alvin’s treatment at the hands of the officers may be disturbing but it is not uncommon. According to their own stop-and-frisk data, the NYPD stops more than 1,800 New Yorkers a day. A New York Times analysis recently determined that more than 20 percent of those stops involve the use of force. And these are only the numbers that the Department records. Anecdotal evidence suggests both figures are much higher.
In this video, exclusive to TheNation.com, Alvin describes his experience of the stop, and working NYPD officers come forward to explain the damage stop-and-frisk has done to their profession and their relationship to the communities they serve. The emphasis on racking up stops has also hindered what many officers consider to be the real work they should be doing on the streets. The video sheds unprecedented light on a practice, cheered on by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, that has put the city’s young people of color in the department’s crosshairs.
Those who haven’t experienced the policy first-hand “have likened Stops to being stuck in an elevator, or in traffic,” says Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This is not merely an inconvenience, as the Department likes to describe it. This is men with guns surrounding you in the street late at night when you’re by yourself. You ask why and they curse you out and rough you up.”
“The tape brings to light what so many New Yorkers have experienced in the shadows at the hands of the NYPD,” says Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP. “It is time for Mayor Bloomberg to come to grips with the scale of the damage his policies have inflicted on our children and their families. No child should have to grow up fearing both the cops and the robbers.”
“This audio confirms what we’ve been hearing from communities of color, again and again,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “They are repeatedly subjected to abusive and disrespectful treatment at the hands of the NYPD. This explains why so many young people don’t trust the police and won’t help the police,” she adds. “It’s not good for law enforcement and not good for the individuals who face this harassment.”
The audio also betrays the seeming arbitrariness of stops and the failure of some police officers to fully comprehend or be able to articulate a clear motivation for carrying out a practice they’re asked to repeat on a regular basis.
And, according to Charney, the only thing the police officers do with clarity during this stop is announce its unconstitutionality.
“We’ve long been claiming that, under this department’s administration, if you’re a young black or Latino kid, walking the street at night you’re automatically a suspicious person,” says Charney, who is leading a class-action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices. “The police deny those claims, when asked. ‘No, that’s not the reason we’re stopping them.’ But they’re actually admitting it here [on the audio recording]. The only reason they give is: ‘You were looking back at us…’ That does not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion, and there’s a clear racial animus when they call him a ‘mutt.’”
The audio was recently played at a meeting of The Morris Justice Project, a group of Bronx residents who have organized around the issue of stop-and-frisk and have been compiling data on people’s interactions with police. Jackie Robinson, mother of two boys, expected not to be surprised when told about the contents of the recording. “It’s stuff we’ve all heard before,” she said at the gathering. Yet Robinson visibly shuddered at one of the audio’s most violent passages. She had heard plenty about these encounters, but had never actually listened to one in action.
“As a mother, it bothers you,” says Robinson. “The police are the ones we’re supposed to turn to when something bad happens. Of all the things I have to worry about when my kids walk out the door, I don’t want to have to worry about them being harmed by the police. It makes you feel like you can’t protect your children. Something has to be done.”
Officers who carry out such belligerent stops face little accountability under the NYPD’s current structure. The department is one of New York City’s last agencies to operate without independent oversight, leaving officers with no safe place to file complaints about police practice and systemic problems.
“An independent inspector general would be in a position to review NYPD policies and practices—like the recorded stop-and-frisk shown here—to see whether the police are violating New Yorkers’ rights and whether the program is in fact yielding benefits,” says the Brennan Center’s Faiza Patel. “An inspector general would not hinder the NYPD’s ability to fight crime, but would help build a stronger, more effective force.”
NYPD spokespeople have said that stop-and-frisk is necessary to keep crime down and guns off the street. But those assertions are increasingly being contradicted by the department’s own officers, who are beginning to speak out about a pervasive culture of number-chasing.
Two officers from two different precincts in two separate boroughs spoke toThe Nation about the same types of pressures put on officers to meet numerical goals or face disciplinary action and retaliation. Most chillingly, both officers use the word “hunt” when describing the relentless quest for summonses, stops and arrests.
“The civilian population, they’re being hunted by us,” says an officer with more than ten years on the job. “Instead of being protected by us, they’re being hunted and we’re being hated.”
The focus on numbers, and the rewards for those who meet quotas has created an atmosphere, another veteran officer says, in which cops compete to see who can get the highest numbers, and it can lead to the kind of arbitrary stop that quickly became violent in this recording.
“It’s really bad,” says the officer after listening to the audio recording. “It’s not a good thing at all. But it’s really common, I’m sorry to say. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Lieberman from the NYCLU agrees: “It’s time for the Mayor and the Police Commissioner to stop trying to scare New Yorkers into accepting this kind of abuse, and to recognize that there is a problem.”
The Target: Stop-and-Frisk’s Damaging Toll on Families and Communities
But more than a year before opening arguments began in the Floyd lawsuit, New York City Council members and community advocates were discussing their own policy ideas to address years of corruption in the department.
The result was two pieces of legislation, collectively known as the Community Safety Act, that the City Council began debating last year seeking to curb a range of abuses and address other NYPD policy problems before they escalate to the point of federal intervention.
The first piece would establish an independent inspector general to investigate and review police policy and practice and make non-binding recommendations to the mayor and police commissioner. The second would expand the categories of individuals protected from profiling and make enforceable an anti-profiling law that is already on the books.
Though the federal monitor imposed by Judge Scheindlin’s decision will seek to fix how the NYPD currently employs stop-and-frisk, it is these bills, councilmembers believe, that could have more impact on the long-term health of the department, and make it more accountable to the public.
The City Council voted on the two bills in June. And despite receiving the full endorsement of only one of the top New York City mayoral candidates (Bill de Blasio), and being denounced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as “dangerous and irresponsible,” the council passed the bills by wide margins.
Their passage into law, however, is by no means assured. Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the legislation in July. And he, along with the city’s largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, has announced his determination to sway the outcome of a veto override vote scheduled in the City Council this Thursday.
“This is a fight to defend your life and your kids’ lives. You can rest assured that I will not give up for one minute,” Bloomberg said at a June press conference.
Though the margin of the council’s June vote on the bills was wide enough to beat a veto, they could go down to defeat if the anti-profiling bill loses just one vote, or if the inspector-general bill loses eight. But if the current majorities hold, the bills will be signed into law, and it would be the second rebuke in as many weeks of the policing tactics of an administration that prides itself on its crime-fighting prowess.
Despite the life-and-death rhetoric from the mayor, it is these personal stakes that the bills’ backers see as the main reason for the mayor’s increasingly acerbic public comments and outright misinformation on the subject in recent weeks.
“He’s afraid of someone saying ‘not everything you did in policing worked,’” says Councilmember Jumaane Williams, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “A real leader can say, ‘Look, we tried a couple things. They didn’t all work out. And the ones that didn’t work out we tried to fix and work with the community on how to fix it.’ But he just didn’t do that, which caused us to be where we are now.”
Indeed, at a post-verdict press conference last week, the mayor became angry and agitated when asked about the pending legislation. The mayor’s message is clear: any extra departmental oversight will prohibit officers from doing their jobs and innocent civilians and officers will die.
“It’s disappointing the amount of fear-mongering that I’ve seen among the mayor and [Police Commissioner Ray Kelly],” says Williams. “ ’The sky is going to fall. Everything bad is going to happen.’ What they’re saying is that we have to profile in order to continue to do police work, and that’s just not acceptable. Otherwise, why are you worried about a profiling bill that just says you can’t profile?”
Though the anti-profiling bill is most vulnerable to the veto, it’s the one seen as most important by many lawyers because of the allowance that civilians can bring claims of profiling before a state court, and a judge can order binding remedies. It is also the one being most misrepresented by opponents.
A PBA delegate reached by The Nation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the union, said that though he is against profiling, he’s also against the anti-profiling bill because he believes it would penalize individual officers.
Yet according to the bill’s language, officers will not be liable for monetary damages or subject to punishment by the judge.
For his part, Mayor Bloomberg has erroneously stated that the bill would bar officers from using descriptions of age or race when identifying a suspect.
“His staff had to tell him to stop saying that, because it isn’t true,” says Councilmember Brad Lander, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “It’s one thing for the New York Post, or the PBA to be saying this, but the mayor?”
The profiling bill is also one that gives hope to people who’ve been stopped and frisked wrongfully and regularly, like Keeshan Harley, an 18-year-old from Brooklyn who says he’s been stopped by the NYPD nearly 150 times.
“If they stop me without proper cause or without fair reasoning, if it’s just because I’m a young black male in Brooklyn, that’s the reason they stop me, then I have the right to bring them to court,” says the teen.
The fact that the mayor and the commissioner are not even open to a dialogue on the subject or attentive to citizens like Harley has frustrated Lander, who says the two have shown contempt for the City Council for merely doing its job of representing constituents’ concerns.
“And not only has the mayor been dismissive of the council, he’s shown a disregard for common sense,” exemplified, Lander said, when he madecomments on a recent radio talk show that whites (not blacks and Latinos) are the ones who are stopped too much.
Mayor Bloomberg also recently argued that the addition of an inspector general would result in too many layers of oversight. But according to Lander, “Inspectors general are present in every other major police department around the country and every federal law enforcement and intelligence agency. There is no example of an officer being confused about whose orders to follow.” The monitor will be focusing narrowly on stop-and-frisk, Lander said, while the inspector general would be “looking at the full array of programs and policies on the NYPD, including Muslim surveillance, quotas, statistics fixing, etc.”
“The history of law enforcement shows that a longer term legal framework for strong oversight and civil rights protection are what’s needed for effective and constitutional policing,” and that’s what these bills are intended to achieve, he says.
The big vote that will determine many upcoming issues revolving around the NYPD will come next month during the primaries for the next mayor—he or she will choose the next police commissioner, and decide whether to pursue Mayor Bloomberg’s appeal of the federal court’s decision in the Floyd case. And positions on public safety appear to be a priority for prospective voters, as the candidate who has distanced himself most from Mayor Bloomberg’s policies is now a serious contender to be the mayor’s successor: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
But in the meantime, this Thursday’s City Council vote on whether to override Bloomberg’s veto of the Community Safety Act bills is the one to watch, because the new mayor, whoever they may be, would be bound by this new legislation.