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The Stop-and-Frisk Crisis: How to Criminalize an Entire Generation of Black and Latino Men

Instead of curtailing gun violence in the inner city, stop-and-frisk has only succeeded in marginalizing young males of color.

New York City has a serious problem. Its problem is how it treats black and Latino males -- especially black and Latino males of the hiphop era. You have to wonder if the city actually wants us here. If so, why did the New York Police Department, in 2011, stop, question and frisk a record-breaking 684,330 black and Latino males, with 41 percent of those stop-and-frisks being youth between the ages of 14 and 24?

To understand this total of 684,330 -- an increase of 14 percent from the 2010 figure --think of it like this: The number of black and Latino males detained by the NYPD in 2011 is more people than the total populations of North Dakota (672,591), Vermont (625,741), Wyoming (563,626), or America’s capital, Washington, DC (601,723). Taken together, these detainees would constitute America’s 19th largest city, nestled between Detroit, Michigan (717,777) and El Paso, Texas (649,121). 

Of those stopped last year, 92 percent were male and 87 percent were African American or Latino. In essence, we are demonizing and criminalizing an entire generation of black and Latino teen boys and young men—many of them already mired in poverty, sub-par schools, and limited employment possibilities—for the rest of their lives. And before they even know what hit them. This is not just a New York problem. This is an American epidemic, a national crisis, where it has become acceptable for local police forces to view black and Latino males in inner cities as menaces to society, first, and as citizens, maybe.

Take the case of Kenton, a young man in his early 20s, freshly arrived in New York City a few years back, and living in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Like many black and Latino males in our great metropolis, Kenton is woefully undereducated, and consequently, underemployed. But he is a good young man, the nephew of a close friend of mine. In between odd jobs, Kenton would sit on the stoop when it was warm outside, taking in his very new environment. He does not use nor sell drugs, is not engaged in any criminal activity whatsoever. He is simply a young black man in America, and apparently, for some police officers, that is a crime in and of itself.

Almost immediately after his arrival in the ‘hood Kenton was repeatedly stopped and frisked by New York police officers. He was patted down in his building corridor, on his building’s stoop, and on the sidewalk. Baffled, Kenton would ask the officers, in his faint Trinidad accent, what was going on. Then what has happened to countless black and Latino males, including me when I was a much younger man, happened to Kenton: he was beaten by members of the New York Police Department. To add insult to injury, he was charged with resisting arrest (I’ve experienced that one, too), and found himself in a jail cell at Rikers Island. His leg was badly hurt by the vicious act of police brutality and he walked with a cane and limp for several months, as he shuffled back and forth to court in an attempt to clear his name and record.

I wish this story was an isolated incident, something that rarely happens in our New York City, in our America. Tragically, it is not. We know that those 684,330 street stops in 2011 represent a more than 600 percent increase since Mayor Bloomberg’s first year in office, when officers conducted 97,000 stops. In fact, more than 4 million people have been stopped under this administration’s watch.

The official line from Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is that stop-and-frisk is necessary to halt the out-of-control violence in New York’s roughest neighborhoods. Well, I live and work as a community leader across the five boroughs, including in my home borough of Brooklyn, and I can tell you, without hesitation, that violence in New York City is higher than ever, whether the violence is being reported or not. Stop-and-frisk has done little to curtail that; instead, it has succeeded in marginalizing yet another generation of young males of color, while habitually contributing to the bad feelings between the black and Latino communities and the New York Police Department.