If most crimes in New York City
were committed by average looking white women of a certain age and proportions,
women who look like me would be stopped and frisked from sunrise to
sunset. But most women who look like me
aren’t dealing drugs or committing robberies or burglaries or shooting their neighbors
or cocaine dealers.
So I’ve never been stopped and
frisked. Why would I? Men of color commit the majority of crimes in this city.
And their victims are most often, people of color. I can’t help but feel that the
two sides of the stop and frisk experience will never view the world and each
other the same way. The young men who are subjected to stop and frisks and the
cops who patrol the city travel in two concentric circles. As a writer who
recorded cops in action for more than two years and wrote two non-fiction books
about their lives on patrol, the saddest part is that the hardworking people
who are most often victims of crimes get swept up along with the worst and most
dangerous parts of their neighborhoods.
Stop and frisk is a numbers came.
Descriptions broadcast over a police radio are only as specific as one given by a
victim of a crime. Black male, medium build, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. How
many young men does this represent? Cops look out into the streets from the
windows of their air-conditioned patrol cars and see hundreds of young black
men. How do you pinpoint just one? You don’t.
It’s impossible, just as picking out a white woman like me in midtown
means you stop many in the hopes of finding the right one. And all it takes is
one gun, one bullet for a mother to lose her son, her daughter, her husband.
There may be a scientific component
to the art of police work but the core of the job is carried out by a man or
woman who operates by his or her own instincts. And sometimes those instincts
are not the right ones on any given day. I found that the cops I traveled with
for my books 23rd Precinct:
and Cop in the Beat,
armed with the same training,
the basis of their personalities, intellect, experience, and capacity. How do
you know if your decision is the right one?
Some of these police officers carried the frustration
of witnessing men and women struggling to keep their families on the straight
and narrow path only to be victimized or bullied by someone in their
neighborhood, and then seeing the criminal back on the street again and again. There’s
a certain expectation with a career criminal: Maybe he’s not carrying a gun on
Tuesday but he may have one on Friday. I’m reminded of the lines from Gilbert
and Sullivan: Things are seldom what they
seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.
And then there’s the theater of the
arrest: People come running to taunt the police, bottles thrown from windows, and
insults hurled when someone is arrested. There are no guidelines for human
behavior and emotions on any given day.
The game of the streets is a dirty
one, whether you are an active participant or not. The cop being taunted may be
the same one responding to a 911 call for help from the same person who just
cursed them out. The innocent young man
walking home from school or from work gets caught up in the mayhem by virtue of
living among people who have done jail time or contribute little or nothing to
their communities. On a hot night with crowds of people outside, there’s a fear
by both the cops working the streets and people living inside of their homes that
something will happen.
I worked with cops who handled stop
and frisks and left the person with a handshake and a “hey, man, just part of
the job” sense that we’re all in this together. Others, and the women are
judged with the men, jumped out of their patrol cars like professional
wrestlers with the single minded judgment that “they’re all criminals” and left
resentment behind. Another cop was renowned and praised for getting guns off
the streets. After a few nights of riding along, I found out why. He stopped
and frisked plenty of young men, betting on the odds that they were carrying a
An old friend of mine has lived in
Washington Heights for decades and has been stopped many times.
“It’s part of living in this
neighborhood,” he said, resigned. “Nothing we can do about it.”
It isn't an easy life for a man living in Washington Heights or Brownsville or East New York, where I grew up, and being a cop handling crime in the
streets isn’t an easy job. Everyone wants to
return home safely at the end of the day.
There’s a large gap here, and it
takes place on three levels. The first is how the police handle the people they
stop, the second is the innocent man being stopped and frisked, and the third
is the criminal element which flourishes with a hands-off policy. If Police
Commissioner Ray Kelly instructed his cops to eliminate stop and frisks
completely as some would like, a spike in crime and deaths will certainly
happen. How do you explain this to someone’s family? The way to bridge this gap
would be better training for cops on how to conduct stop and frisks.
Other cities are placing cameras on
the uniforms of their police officers. If the police recorded stop and frisks
and other encounters, just as they are by witnesses using camera phones, these
recordings could provide evidence and information. The camera, called a Body
Cam, is used in Oakland, California and in Burnsville, Minnesota, a town
smaller than most Brooklyn neighborhoods. It offers the opportunity to provide evidence
of misconduct or serves to exonerate.
At the end of the day, one cop may suspect a gun and
be right. Another may suspect a gun and be wrong. Not every cop has the same instincts and not
every young man is guilty or innocent. Refining the process and procedure to
enact more accurate stop and frisks ensures a more targeted approach.
more and more of our men are holding down jobs and getting an education rather than
finding themselves in jail, then there will be less crime and less opportunity
for young and innocent men to be judged as criminals.
It’s going to be a long, hot summer.
Labels: Cops, NYPD, police, policing, stop and frisk