A dozen New York City lawmakers will meet members of Congress and officials from the justice department on Wednesday in the hope of prompting a federal investigation into the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy.
The meeting marks the latest development in a series of efforts launched by legal organizations, policy makers, and local activists aimed at reforming the police department's practices.
Members of the coalition say mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly have failed to respond to demands for change and that federal intervention is now needed."It's clear that the mayor and commissioner – in the face of everything that points to this policy being unjust, unfair, racist, prejudiced and most importantly ineffective – won't do anything about it," said city council member Jumaane Williams, a fierce critic of the department's policies who is attending today's meetings at the capitol. "Their lack of leadership is forcing us to do other things."
On Tuesday the local news website DNAinfo revealed that the explosion in stop-and-frisks under Bloomberg's administration – by 600% in the last decade – has had little impact on the number of people of shot in New York City, in contrast to claims made by the mayor and the commissioner that the practice is making the city safer. NYPD statistics reveal that 1,821 people were victims of gunfire in 2011, a figure which is almost identical to the 1,892 people who were shot in 2002 when Bloomberg came into office.
When confronted Tuesday with the fact that high rates of stop-and-frisk have not reduced shootings, Bloomberg said: "I know that."
Williams believes the city's justification for widespread police stops is falling apart. "It's slowly crumbling around them. There's nothing they can say," he said. "If you stop more black young men than actually exist in the city and shootings are not even going down, I don't even know what you're holding on to," Williams said, referencing department statistics which show the number of young African American males stopped by the NYPD in 2011 exceeded the number of that group living in the city.
Last year the police department broke its own record by stopping close to 700,000 people on the city's streets. As with every year over the past decade, the vast majority of those stopped were African American or Latino and nearly nine out of 10 had committed no crime. The department is on track to make 2012 another record-setting year.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has been an outspoken critic of the department's stop-and-frisk practices. In March, the NYCLU filed a lawsuit targeting the department's 'Clean Halls' program, which expands stop-and-frisk practices into residential buildings. On Wednesday the organization unveiled a free mobile phone app that allows users to record and report incidents.
A federal judge last month granted class-action status to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
"We still have quite a way to go before stop-and-frisk goes from 700,000 to whatever a number that makes sense is," said George Gresham, president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. "But there's no question that this, I believe, is the moment where public awareness and therefore public official awareness is keenly focused on the fact that this is a failing policy."
NYCLU executive director, Donna Lieberman, believes sweeping changes in NYPD culture are needed. "What we're hearing from the NYPD thus far is that they have a public relations problem," Lieberman said. "Well, they have more than that."
"This requires a massive overhaul of NYPD culture emanating from the top," she said.
Lieberman pointed to the department's use of "quotas" as a crucial factor in driving the high number of stops. The NYPD has denied using a quota system, though multiple officers have reported that the system does exist and results in undue pressure placed upon rank-and-file police to make stops.
The campaign against the NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk is supported by those who have experienced it. Steve Kohut, born and raised in Manhattan's Lower East Side, says he's been stopped and frisked "more times than I can remember" since he was 12. "It was just life to me," Kohut said.
He only realized that it was not common to all areas of the city when he visited a friend's upscale neighborhood. It prompted him to question the practice. "Wait a minute, the cops don't stop you every time you go to the store over here? They don't do that to you? They don't search you? They don't push you up against a wall? They don't put your face on the hood of their car?"
The inconsistency prompted Kohut to join a group that monitors police activity in New York City neighborhoods like the one he grew up in. "It messes with my head," he said, adding that it is "heartbreaking to know that there are kids growing up right now that think this is just life."
He hopes the growing attention being paid to stop-and-frisk will lead to a change in the policy. "I think it's great," he said. "It's not a positive thing to just declare martial law on a colored community or a poor community, which is pretty much what they're doing."
[NYPD officers via DonaldBowers / Shutterstock.com]