Turning the page on ‘stop and frisk’ in NYC?

February 5, 2014
Sarah Hoye
Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK – Lalit Clarkson pushed his daughter’s stroller down a street in the Bronx last Sunday. He was walking through the same neighborhood while on lunch break in 2006, when he was stopped by New York City police officers.

“My story, in some ways, is no different than other young man’s story that grows up in this city,” Clarkson said. “Walking down the street, you should not be harassed for doing nothing. And this is the daily life for black and brown people across the country.”

Clarkson, who was teaching second grade at Grand Concourse Academy at the time, had just left the corner store with a bag of chips to go along with his Subway sandwich, located across the street from his school, when two officers approached.

“When I come outside, I’m standing right there about to cross the street, and the officers say, ‘Hey you, come over here,’” he said.

Clarkson was the target of what's called “stop-and-frisk” – a controversial tactic where police temporarily detain people on the street to question and possibly search them. The officers claimed he was coming from a known drug area and wanted to know if he was carrying anything illegal, he said, adding that it's not uncommon to be stopped.

“I've been getting stopped since I was about 13,” he said. “It becomes a normalized part of life, like you expect for it to happen.”

Yet, the day he was outside of school was different he said, explaining that he had enough.

“I was mad, I was shocked,” he said. “On the one hand, its like this is another day, but I really feel like on that day, I was like, nah, man, I’m teaching, I’m a professional and I’m on a lunch break.” 

A stigmatizing practice

In 2008, Clarkson became one of several plaintiffs who filed a federal class-action lawsuitagainst the City of New York for discriminatory stop-and-frisks by the city's police department.

In the early 1990s, amid a turbulent period that featured record homicide rates, Mayor David Dinkins implemented the stop-and-frisk law, which allows an officer to stop someone if there's a reasonable suspicion that person has engaged or will engage in a crime. Police can frisk anyone they have reason to believe is armed and dangerous.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York City Police Department conducted nearly 533,000 stop-and-frisks in 2012, with blacks and Latinos making up 84 percent of the stops. Since 2002, the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 90 percent of New Yorkers who have been stopped-and-frisked are “completely innocent.” While the stop-and-frisk data for 2013 has yet to be completed, the number of street stops in New York in July, August and September of last year reportedly dropped by 80 percent compared to the totals during the same months in 2012. 

Darius Charney, lead attorney for the stop-and-frisk lawsuit against the city, said the practices have a lasting effect on individuals and communities.

“It can be very stigmatizing, particularly for young men of color because it happens over and over again,” Charney said. “The message is being sent that you are viewed as a criminal by law enforcement. They view you as a criminal not because of what you're doing but because of who you are and the way you look.”  

The lawsuit argued the city's stop-and-frisk practices constituted racial profiling and were unconstitutional. Last summer, after a nine-week trial in August, a federal judge agreed. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg appealed the decision.

“When it happened, it was sad,” Clarkson said. “‘Cause it was like, this is something that everyone in our community knows, but a judge has to say that it's unconstitutional for the city to recognize it's unconstitutional.” 

Reforming stop-and-frisk

But the newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on the promise to reform stop-and-frisk, even referencing his own biracial son.

“There are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who've never experienced stop and frisk,” de Blasio said during the campaign. Chirlane and I have talked to Dante many times about the fact that some day he will be stopped.”

Last week, de Blasio made good on his campaign promise and announced plans to drop the city's appeal of the federal stop-and-frisk ruling. The mayor announced the decision at a community center in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, an area known to have a high concentration of stop-and-frisk incidents

“It's been a policy that treated our young people, particularly our young people of color, like their rights didn't matter,” he said. 

Under the agreement, a court-appointed monitor will oversee the police department for three years. In August 2013, Peter L. Kimroth, formerly the city’s top lawyer under Mayor Ed Koch, was appointed as monitor. In that role, Kimroth would oversee policing policies to make sure that the NYPD carried out reforms recommended in Floyd v. City of New York, the federal class-action lawsuit, and Ligon v. City of New York, according to the New York World. Kimroth will also be an intermediary between the plaintiffs and the NYPD and the City of New York.

So far, civil rights advocates have applauded De Blasio for settling the stop-and-frisk lawsuits.

“This agreement is an important step in moving us closer to beginning the process ordered by the court last August, and it is refreshing that this new administration is committing to that process moving forward,” Joo-Hyun Kang, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a campaign to end discriminatory practices by police, said in a recent statement.

Charney said the decision was years in the making.

“So, to have the city of New York, the government actually recognize what I think folks have for so many years been feeling, and admit that it’s wrong, and admit that it has to change is a big deal,” he said.

Sharing his story and getting involved with the lawsuit empowered Clarkson, who has since become a union organizer for airport workers. He said the legal victory is bittersweet because it took a lawsuit to get the city to change.

But he said it's a new day for New York, and his 8-month-old daughter.

“Moving forward for her, I want her to be able to walk in the city of New York without feeling like she’s a villain, without feeling like she’s a criminal,” Clarkson said. “Feeling protected by the police, not from the police.”