Ed. note: In response to latest statistics showing a sharp increase in stop-and-frisk tactics, police reform activists have painted a mural in Hunts Point to alert passersby of their rights when stopped by police. A version of this story appears in the March 8-21 edition of the Norwood News.
Whenever he ventures out into his University Heights neighborhood, whether by car or foot, Blandon Casenave thinks there is a strong possibility he might be stopped and searched by police for no other reason than the color of his skin.
“I’m conscious of it all the time,” Casenave said.
As a black man living in New York City, Casenave has good reason to believe his travels might be interrupted by a police encounter.
Last year, police officers stopped people and questioned them 684,330 times, according to a report recently released by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Many of them were also searched and the vast majority of those stopped — 87 percent — were black or Latino. Nearly 90 percent of the stops did not result in an arrest or a ticket and most of those that did result in an arrest or summons, were for low-level offenses.
The percentage of black and Latinos stopped has remained the disproportionately high, but the number of stops continues to rise at an alarming clip. It’s a 14 percent increase from 2010 and a 600 percent increase from a decade ago.
While the NYPD defends its stop tactics as one of the main reasons violent crime, especially murders, are down citywide compared to the 1990s, elected officials and other civil liberties groups are calling for widespread reform.
William Cannon, an NYPD veteran of 27 years, who retired from the department last October and now teaches at Monroe College, says stop tactics are used to prevent people from carrying around guns.
“If they feel uncomfortable carrying a gun because they might get in trouble if they get stopped,” he said, “then they won’t carry around that gun and they won’t be able to use it.”
“It’s very effective,” he added.
In an e-mail to the New York Times, Paul J. Browne, a spokesman for the NYPD, said: “Stops save lives.” There half as many murders over the past 10 years than during the previous 10 years, Browne pointed out.
But opponents of the tactic say they amount racial profiling and harassment. In the wake of these latest numbers, a police reform campaign — comprised of civil rights, minority, and activist groups, and including NYCLU and local Bronx groups like the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and Picture the Homeless — was launched and is now pushing for legislation introduced by Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams.
The Communities United for Police Reform says Williams’ legislation would “crack down on discriminatory practices” by strengthening the definition of discrimination, ensuring New Yorkers understand their rights when it comes to searches and requiring officers to identify themselves by giving those searched a business card. Williams, no stranger to police encounters having been arrested himself as a Councilman, plans on introducing further legislation that would increase oversight and transparency on NYPD stop and search practices.
The topic is touchy, says Brenda Caldwell, the president of the 52nd Precinct Community Council. Last fall, she tried to have the NYPD conduct a workshop on stop and frisk protocol but was told the topic was “too much of a delicate subject to bring up.”
Caldwell said only a couple of people have complained at her monthly meetings about aggressive or unwarranted stops. According to the most recent statistics compiled by the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board, between 51 and 89 stop, search and frisk complaints were filed from residents of the 52nd Precinct between January 2009 and June 2010. There were at least nine city precincts with higher complaint numbers.
Casenave. 34, filed his own complaint last spring after an encounter with police on East 193rd Street, near Kingsbridge Road. He and a Puerto Rican friend were sitting in his car on the side of the street, in front of a fire hydrant. While Casenave talked on the phone to another friend who lived on the block, he noticed four police officers approaching his car.
After asking for license and registration, an officer asked Casenave and his friend to get out of the car. Casenave asked the officers why he was being searched. They told him he was “being frisked” and that his car was being searched.
Casenave said the officer who frisked him, Dionicio Brito, was “really aggressive,” especially when grabbing around his crotch area. He felt violated. The search of his car came up empty, but the cops issued Casenave a summons for parking in front of a fire hydrant. Casenave took down Brito’s badge number and later filed a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Months later, the board ruled that Brito had abused his authority by frisking Casenave and searching his vehicle. Sgt. Kimberly Motto, Brito’s supervisor, was also convicted of abuse of authority for allowing the search.
Casenave said he felt validated, but it doesn’t stop him from worrying about being stopped again.