Stop and Frisk, the NYPD practice that gives police the authority to “stop, question, and frisk” New Yorkers, has consistently sparked controversy since 2002 when its data collection began. According to a study by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the number of young black men that were stopped by police in 2011 is higher than the actual number of young black men living in New York City.1 New Yorkers were stopped a record-breaking 685,724 times that year: 88 percent were innocent, 53 percent were black, 34 percent were Latino, 9 percent were white, and 51 percent were 14-24 years old.2 140,000 teens were stopped, and one in five were between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. 86 percent of stopped teens were black or Latino, and the majority were boys.3 The vast majority of those stopped are completely innocent, but the effects of Stop and Frisk can be damaging to individuals and communities.
Victims of the practice are left with “psychological impact and collateral losses, such as loss of jobs, welfare benefits, and access to shelter or public housing.4” Many people who have been stopped said their experience made them feel “degraded and humiliated.4” Being stopped can “leave people feeling unsafe, fearful of police, afraid to leave their homes, or re-living the experience whenever they see police.”
Human services organizations are a great resource and safe haven for many young people who are targeted by Stop and Frisk, and these organizations have to deal with the effects Stop and Frisk has on their clients. Safe Space NYC provides a variety of programming for youth ages 13-24, including after school, job readiness and life skills, education and peer outreach to prevent pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, and transitional-living programs for homeless youth.. Those who are served by Safe Space are predominately people of color (black, Latino, Caribbean) and some are LGBTQ. The organization also features programs for justice-involved youth, which are coordinated by people who have been involved in the criminal justice system. Stop and Frisk occurs often in Safe Space’s neighborhoods; the Jamaica, Queens headquarters is located near Jamaica Avenue in a “high-impact area”—meaning that there are police, in pairs, on nearly every block. If clients are seen “behaving differently,” “looking a particular way,” or “talking a certain way” they can be deemed suspicious and are stopped. As a result, kids arrive late to school, jobs, or their respective Safe Space programs, as they are typically stopped on their way. When younger kids (around age 13) are seen playing/joking around, maybe they’ll raise their voices amongst each other, which can also get them stopped. The organization’s youth face Stop and Frisk at least once a week, and staff members have even had to pick up kids from local precincts.
Safe Space does not take a position that Stop and Frisk is right or wrong. Rather, the organization works with targeted youth to ensure that if and when they are stopped, they can respond accordingly. Yvonne Varela, Director of Youth services, spoke about the impact Stop and Frisk has on Safe Space’s clients. She said that when stopped, the kids in their programs are usually very upset, and in a mindset of “here we go again” because it happens so often. If they have ever previously been stopped or have encountered issues with the law, they deal with a worrying string of thoughts. They wonder what this present stop will mean for them and how it will impact their family, school, and other activities. They are also “of two minds;” despite their dislike of personally feeling targeted when they are stopped, they also recognize that the police are just doing their jobs. Yvonne and all Youth Services staff members have conversations regarding concepts of respect between police and citizens, and maintaining one’s composure when stopped. They work to alleviate at least some of the fear and anger their youth endure when they are targeted so they know their rights and have a plan in mind for how to tackle the situation.
Yvonne noted that Safe Space has a good working relationship with the 132nd precinct; officers come in for visits, co-host yearly picnics and cookouts, and law enforcement officials visit to build bridges for careers. The organization co-hosted a 100 Black Men in Law Enforcement workshop, and information has been provided to help youth clean up their records. Speakers from other organizations visit to distribute information and provide guidance to Safe Space participants. Literature is laid out on site, and a “Know Your Rights 101” takes place for the youth. Organizations such as Safe Space realize that Stop and Frisk is a significant reality in their clients’ daily lives. Consequently, they have had to include programming to prepare kids to navigate these situations and help them respond to the program’s impact.
Stop and Frisk has the ability to put even innocent New Yorkers in a terrible downward spiral. Being stopped can lead to arrest for small amounts of marijuana, or just not having the proper identification on your person, which builds a criminal record that can trigger more arrests and convictions. Additionally, being stopped can leave people in a period of uncertainty while waiting to appear before a judge, and are moved from the precinct to the courthouse. This is especially concerning because although people are usually innocent, missing work for a few days because they were arrested (and as a result stuck waiting around in uncertainty) is only ever seen as how it sounds. Some are left fired and forced to search for a new job in today’s difficult economy. Moreover, any future convictions for Stop and Frisk targets can become a felony, and prevent them from finding a job. Those who are homeless and are arrested or convicted can lose their places in a shelter if they are gone (even unfairly) for an extended period of time.
Fortunately some steps have recently been taken that could lead to major reform. On August 8, 2013 the NYPD agreed to purge all Stop and Frisk data, which includes the names and addresses of those—innocent or not—who have been stopped over the years and on August 12, the practice was finally ruled unconstitutional. A recent court decision orders NYPD officers to wear cameras in one precinct per borough5, and requires a court monitor to review the practice and enact changes.6 Hopefully, these improvements will curb the negative impacts of Stop and Frisk and allow people of color in New York City—especially youth like those Safe Space is engaging—to feel safe and respected in their neighborhoods.
Contributed by Stephanie Parkinson of the Human Services Council.