Whether it is the war in Vietnam or Afghanistan… or whether the practices of a large police department: the most certain way to change directions is through a revolt of those who carry out the laws and policies of the government: the guards of the status quo. The revolt can be velvet or painful, may come through protests or discourse, but when the people charged with enforcing the policy decide to stop: it will stop. This seems to be precisely what is going on in New York City, centering on the infamous “Stop and Frisk” tactics.
This week marks the NYC City Council hearings to reform the NYPD practices. Yesterday’s packed hearing in Queens included testimony from activists at DRUM, explaining how the NYPD infiltrated their organization. Such tactics reek of an era supposedly surpassed in this country. This week also marks a continuation of the court hearing in New York federal district court regarding “Operation Clean Halls,” the NYPD’s policy of stopping and frisking people in public housing. Judge Shira Scheindlin will hear the case, serving as a precursor to the larger class action Floyd v. City of New York, regarding the broader policy of Stop and Frisk. The Floyd trial is expected in March, 2013.
This week’s testimony (which is expected to last eight days) not only includes the voices of many actual victims of the aggressive tactics, but also the testimony of a prosecutor who grew suspicious when seeing so many people arrested for trespassing in their own building. Jeannette Rucker is but one gatekeeper struggling to do her job and prosecute the people arrested. Her job, however, is not to prosecute every police allegation; her job is to do justice for the people.
This past summer, in People v. Figueroa, New York Judge Noach Dear stated he could not recall the last time, if ever, a White person was arrested for an Open Alcohol Container violation. He then set a scientific standard for police to prove the alcohol is of the legal level- a standard no field officer could reach. Former cops are among Stop and Frisk’s opponents, including NY State Senator Eric Adams, who will testify in the Floyd case that the Commissioner’s stated policy goal is to scare young Black and Latino people from carrying a gun, knowing they will be stopped at every opportunity. A groundbreaking audio recording of one youth being stopped, assaulted, and threatened has prompted even more police to share their own stories of being pressured to randomly stop New Yorkers.
Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly repeatedly claim that the policy is working, getting guns off the streets, projecting there were 5,600 fewer murders over the past ten years. The Mayor says this while also admitting shootings are not being reduced. The NYPD conducted 524,873 more stops in 2011 than in 2003 (pre-Stop and Frisk), and recovered only 176 more guns. This additional recovery rate is only .03% more under the most aggressive practices, so clearly gun seizure plays little, if any, part in reducing murders.
Bloomberg apparently takes the early 1990’s murder number when the nation was at its peak, and claims every murder short of that peak is a result of Stop and Frisk– yet rates have dropped nationally, and NYC has a rate similar to Phoenix, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. The greatest declines came before Bloomberg took office, and has leveled off over the past decade.
Mayor Bloomberg is not called to statistically prove his speculation of 5,600 lives saved, 90% of whom, he claims, would have been Black and Latino. It seems to be based on a presumption that murders are tied to a relationship of fear between the police and the community. With shootings remaining stable, it is difficult to presume there are fewer guns on the streets for those who want them. He makes no reference to any of the other social forces that contribute to a safe and healthy community, including things other cities may be doing to achieve similar results.
Looking at overall crime, the NYPD Compstat data indicates a reduction of only 2% since 2005. Misdemeanor drug crimes have increased 31% while felony drug crimes dipped 22%, which may be a change in prosecution rather than behavior. Stolen property, sex crimes, and dangerous weapons (felonies and misdemeanors) have steadily risen over a decade, from about 16,000 to 23,000. It is a flimsy hook Commissioner Kelly hangs his hat upon, a national trend in murder reduction, and the court is likely to find the hyperbole is not enough to justify the collateral damage to the community.
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are expected to live under a regime of total authority, and simply go about their business when 90% of the time the police find no illegal behavior. Yet even when there is no crime committed, people can be expected to expend time and money proving it. Activist Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, known for his All Things Harlem work filming the police, was arrested with a New York Yankees souvenir bat and an unworkable switchblade in his car. After this probably illegal search, and extensive court proceedings, prosecutors reduced the charges rather than dismissed them.
And this, under the circumstances, ends up being a victory. Those who wonder how ten million people, disproportionately young men of Color, are currently under the control of the criminal justice system need look no further than the example of Stop and Frisk. Criminal records start with petty things that may or may not have been committed. Each arrest, innocent or not, compounds with the last and makes it increasingly difficult to find legitimate housing and employment.
Howard Zinn’s classic book A People’s History of the United States presents many chapters in our nation’s history where popular movements struggled against the forces of power and control. His essay, “The Coming Revolt of the Guards,” is rooted in the Constitutional principal that the government draws its power from the consent of the People, and government power relies upon those who guard its authority. Many with friends and family in law enforcement, government, or the military, likely realize “just following orders” can be a tempting directive for anyone trying to feed their family. Some police, prosecutors, and judges appear to be reconsidering.
It is hard to know when a critical mass has been reached, of when consent has been officially withheld. It would appear that this mathematical equation is being tallied across New York City, in places such as Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and the courts.
Posted: Friday, 26 October 2012