By Phillip Smith
There has been a double-barreled challenge this week to the NYPD and its heavy-handed policing. On the one hand, the department and the city are being sued in federal court over their stop-and-frisk program, which is aimed predominantly at young men of color. On the other, the NYPD is facing the glare of publicity over a new report that contends it has wasted as much as a million man-hours over the past ten years arresting low-level marijuana offenders.
Under the stop-and-frisk program, which the city touts as a crime-fighting effort, more than 531,000 people were stopped last year and nearly five million in the past decade. Some were stopped only for questioning, some had their bags or backpacks searched, some were subjected to full pat-down searches. Only 10% of those stops resulted in arrests -- including arrests for public marijuana possession after police tricked or intimidated people into pulling out their baggies (possession is otherwise decriminalized in the state) -- and only a tiny number resulted in the seizure of weapons.
The massive number of annual stop-and-frisks, five times the number a couple of decades ago, raises questions itself. But who is being stopped-and-frisked is raising even more questions and concerns. While blacks make up a quarter of the city's population, they accounted for 51% of all stop-and-frisk encounters, being stopped at a rate twice what would be expected with color-blind enforcement. Whites, on the other hand, make up 44% of the population, but accounted for only 11% of stop-and-frisk encounters.
Many of the stop-and-frisks are illegal and the enforcement is racially biased, argued attorneys in the class action lawsuit in federal court this week. In the case, which began Monday, attorneys for the plaintiffs -- people who were subjected to stop-and-frisk searches -- are seeking a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes in police practices.
They are not seeking to ban stop-and-frisk searches because they have been found legal. But US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has expressed deep concerns over the tactic in previous rulings, could order reforms. The trial could last for up to a month.
NYPD is doing illegal stops and must reform its practices, said Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Darius Charney, who is representing the plaintiffs. The stops are "arbitrary, unnecessary, and unconstitutional" and a "frightening and degrading experience" for "thousands, if not millions" of New Yorkers, Charney argued. He said plaintiffs will present "powerful testimonial and statistical evidence" that residents are stopped for no good reason.
On Monday, the first plaintiff witnesses took the stand. Devin Almonor, 16, the son of a police officer, testified that he was stopped when he was 13, handcuffed and thrown against an unmarked police car as he made his way home. David Floyd, now a 33-year-old medical student, testified that he was stopped twice without cause.
Attorneys for the city responded that in a city that large, large numbers of stop-and-frisks should not be unexpected and that the NYPD went where the crime was.
"The New York Police Department is fully committed to policing within the boundaries of the law," said Heidi Grossman, an attorney for the city. "Crime is not distributed evenly across the city. Police are given an awesome responsibility, one of which is to bring crime down and keep people safe."
Given those awesome responsibilities, a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project is raising eyebrows. The report's main finding is clear from its title: One Million Police Hours: Making 440,000 Marijuana Possession Arrests in New York City, 2002-2012. The report was authored by CUNY sociology professor Dr. Harry Levine, an expert on marijuana possession arrests, at the request of members of the city council and the state legislature.
While marijuana possession offenders typically faced only fines once they had their day in court, the report found that the arrests themselves inflicted immediate pain. Those 440,000 arrests resulted in five million hours of police custody, an average of more than 10 hours per person of being held in the city's notorious holding cells, often overnight.
"We cannot afford to continue arresting tens of thousands of youth every year for low-level marijuana possession," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights organizer with VOCAL-NY. "We can't afford it in terms of the negative effect it has on the future prospects of our youth and we can't afford in terms of police hours. It's shocking that the same mayor who has been taking money away from youth programs and cutting other social services, is wasting tens of millions of dollars locking youth up through the NYPD's marijuana arrests crusade. We need legislative action to fix this madness."
"This report shows that people arrested for marijuana possession spend an average of 12-18 hours, just in police custody, and the vast majority of those arrested are young Black and Latino men from seven to ten neighborhoods in NYC," said Chino Hardin, field coordinator and trainer with the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. "This is not just a crisis, but a frontline civil rights issue facing urban communities of color in the 21st century. We are calling on Governor Cuomo to do the right thing, and exercise the moral and political will to address this injustice."
While Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly last fall announced changes it how the NYPD processes marijuana arrests and the number of pot possession busts have begun to decline slightly, advocates are calling on the legislature and the governor to change the state's 1977 decriminalization law to remove law enforcement's "in public view" loophole, the provision NYPD has used to great effect.
"For years, New Yorkers from across the state have organized and marched and rallied, demanding an end to these outrageous arrests. And now we learn that the police have squandered one million hours to make racially biased, costly, and unlawful marijuana possession arrests. This is scandalous," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I'm sure we can all think of more effective things for the police to spend their time on -- imagine if NYPD committed one million hours to working with communities to stop gun violence or to pursue unsolved serious crimes. We stand with the caucus and other leaders in Albany -- both Democrats and Republicans -- in demanding reform. The hour of change is upon us, and reform is long, long overdue."
Whether it is the massive stop-and-frisk policing program or the practice of turning marijuana possession tickets into misdemeanor arrests complete with post-booking jail time and criminal records, NYPD is coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism..