This is the second of three in a series of posts about the upcoming NYC mayoral elections on November 5, 2013. 

One of the most important things any new mayor of New York could do to reduce wealth disparity, maintain democratic freedoms and help NYC remain a place where “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere” is to finally end the city's notorious stop-and-frisk policy.

Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio (likely) has his work cut out for him.

This practice of police stopping, questioning and searching pedestrians is touted as an effort to reduce crime, but the racial disparity among those subjected to the policy is troubling.

In August, federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin decided stop-and-frisk violated the constitutional rights of New York’s minorities, with respect to both the Fourth Amendment's protections from unreasonable search and seizure and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, stayed her decision on October 31, allowing the policy to continue, not because they made a decision on the policy’s constitutionality, but because the court thought Scheindlin had compromised her impartiality during the case.

Drawing attention to this racial disparity, a study commissioned by de Blasio (and highlighted on his website) found:

“Police stopped 49 white New Yorkers for every weapon taken off the streets, compared to 71 Latino New Yorkers, and 93 black New Yorkers stopped for every weapon yielded. This information strongly suggests racial profiling is used in stop-and-frisk, which sows seeds of distrust and animosity in communities of color toward the police. Reinforcing this concern, testimony in the Floyd v. New York case suggested that NYPD brass requires quotas even in the absence of suspicion of crime.”

From Brown to Now

The question of constitutionality still remains. We can go back quite far in our nation’s history to find reasons why stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional.

We can, for example, examine Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren's famous decision to end school segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. Of segregated students, Warren argued that “to separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Warren’s decision could as easily apply to stop-and-frisk just as it did to school segregation. After all, what might a child of color growing up in NYC learn from stop-and-frisk other than this stark and damaging lesson: that because of race, police have the power to make their existence suspect from beginning to end; that they cannot walk down neighborhood sidewalks without being subjected to suspicion and fear. 

NYC’s Future Should Include Freedom

Certainly, the residents and businesses of New York City have suffered from crime for centuries. I grew up outside New York City in the 1970s and 80s. Immersed in our local culture, we kids in the neighborhood played a game dubbed “Muggers.” Children learn what they live, right? Outside New York City, we learned it was a magical but dangerous place.

Today, it's a much safer city with a reputation as one of the world's great artistic and commercial playgrounds. Many argue this is due to the aggressive police tactics put in place under Rudy Giuliani and maintained by Michael Bloomberg, and those who believe that generally favor the continuance of programs such as stop-and-frisk.

The cost of this is that children (and adults) of color in New York City are still forced to learn from what they live. The implications of stop-and-frisk include not only the encouragement of racial profiling, but also the continuance of a long-standing practice requiring people of color to justify their presence in the nation’s parks, streets and sidewalks, or risk threats, intimidation and arrest.

We have come a long way from curfews and travel passes in the days of slavery, but, as a historian, I see parallels between stop-and-frisk and other attempts to restrict access to public space throughout our nation’s history.

If that's not reason enough for whoever wins the New York City mayoral race to end the oppressive stop-and-frisk policy, then we all need to rethink what it means to be free in America.


For more election-related issues, read about universal pre-K from policy associate Halley Potter.