New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday used the case of a murdered 17-year-old Bronx student to deflect The New York Times’ criticism of the New York Police Department’s much-debated “stop-and-frisk” tactic. Bloomberg, in a caustic speech, all but accused the newspaper of racism in failing to cover Alphonza Bryant III’s April 22 shooting death:
“There was not a mention of his murder in our papers, our paper of record, The New York Times. ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ did not include the murder of 17-year-old [Alphonza] Bryant. Do you think that if a white 17-year-old prep student from Manhattan had been murdered, the Times would have ignored it? Me neither.”
The Times actually had mentioned Bryant’s death prior to Bloomberg’s speech, and covered it in full today. However, the mayor’s sound and fury didn’t obscure the controversy surrounding “stop-and-frisk,” a practice in which New York police officers ostensibly seek to deter crime with random stops of anyone they suspect has committed a crime or is about to, or who appears to pose a danger.
How the NYPD determines those risk factors is the subject of an ongoing trial in the case of Floyd v. the City of New York. As reported on the March 23 edition of Melissa Harris-Perry (video above), secretly recorded audiotapes released by officer Pedro Serrano in March indicate that he was given mandated quotas for stops by superiors within the department, and that “stop-and-frisk” may be more focused on race than crime.
Along those lines, two curious defenses for “stop-and-frisk” from the department have emerged.
A new Times report indicated that the NYPD says the issue is not racism, but laziness:
Some of the testimony heard over the first six weeks of the trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan has had more in keeping with labor arbitration than with a constitutional case, as the city has tried to play down secret station house recordings, partly by characterizing some police officers as lazy.
“The sergeant is complaining that the cops on overtime didn’t want to get out of the car,” one deputy inspector, Steven Mauriello, testified after being played a secret station house recording of one of his sergeants exhorting his officers to work harder. “He doesn’t want them sitting in the car reading the newspaper.”
Whether the officers are mandated to stop and frisk to keep them active isn’t quantifiable, but the effectiveness of the tactic is. The question of whether or not “stop-and-frisk” is productive has long been settled. It isn’t.
Given the negligible decline in the city’s crime rate, the exploding number of stops and of frisks in the last several years–going from just a bit more than 313,000 in 2004 to almost 686,000 in 2011– isn’t commensurate with claims that the city needed stop-and-frisk. Add that to the fact that the NYPD itself, in court, is equating the stops with busy work, and the argument that “stop-and-frisk” is necessary loses steam.
Factor in race and ethnicity, and the tactic becomes even less defensible. The Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the parties helping to bring Floyd v. the City of New York to trial, released statistics on stops from 2004 to 2012. It indicates that black people, stopped 2.3 million times in that time, had the same (relatively miniscule) number of seizures of weapons, drugs, or other illegal items as the 435,000 white people who were stopped.
But that second defense offered by the NYPD this week? It came from commissioner Ray Kelly, actually arguing that black people are being “understopped” by police. In an interview with ABC, he said “African-Americans are being understopped in relation to people being described as perpetrators of violent crime.” Not people committing violent crime–people “described as perpetrators.” Given the history of the Central Park Five and so many false criminal accusations against people of color in New York City and elsewhere, it’s startling that Kelly condones such an assumption.
It’s reasonable to wonder whether the late Alphonza Bryant was “described as a perpetrator” when he was stopped and frisked by police in the Bronx. A Daily Beast report recounted Bryant’s recent stop through the words of his friends who witnessed it, and his mother, Janii Van Doten–who heard the incident through her son’s cell phone. Months later, he was dead, a victim of a stray bullet fired by a gunman who presumably was neither stopped, nor frisked.
The questions being asked in Floyd v. the City of New York and by media like The New York Times are valid. Deflecting the criticism by race-baiting and using a dead teen as a pawn doesn’t answer them. Neither does blaming lazy officers. And as Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, the police commissioner alleging that not enough black people are stopped and frisked may simply be a good reason for people of color to avoid New York City. Here’s hoping I’m not “described as a perpetrator” on the way home to Brooklyn tonight.
On the March 23 “MHP,” our panel examined why “stop-and-frisk” is not just a New York issue. See the video below.