More than 600,000 people were stopped and questioned as part of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy in 2010. Police officials have long argued that the stops are critical to maintaining public safety, but in the eyes of some activists, the tactics single out minority residents and they're fighting back with what they consider their best weapon: education.
This weekend, in a nondescript conference room in midtown Manhattan, members of the People's Justice coalition arranged chairs and placed snacks on a table. A slide projector issued a provocative image onto a nearby screen: it showed the silhouette of a police officer, holding a baton threateningly as he stands over another person. Nearby, a pair of observers videotape the incident. The headline for the image, "Know Your Rights," also happened to be the title of the session.
One of the organizers of the training, Yul-san Liem, said New Yorkers had to be made aware of their rights during police stops because "the police are acting in improper ways all over the place, and it's actually a systemic problem."
People's Justice, according to one leaflet handed out at the session, includes the Audre Lorde Project, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, the Justice Committee, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Movement Support Project, and Nodutdol: For Korean Community Development.
The leaflet also listed tips for those confronting the police:
- "Say loudly 'I do not consent to this search' so that others can hear you. This can help if the cops use anything found against you in court. Your lawyer may get the evidence thrown out if the search was illegal."
- "Say as little as possible and only answer basic questions (name, address, etc.)."
- "If you are trans or gender non-conforming: it may be a good idea to carry a copy of your legal name change documents along with your ID."
For one attendee, high school teacher Dennis Flores, the sessions are a good way to help some of his students, some of whom have complained of being stopped by police.
"I want to pass on this type of information," said Flores. "I would like them to be better informed, so that they can avoid arrest, or if they do get arrested where we are able to provide resources for them to fight back."
Flores also encourages others to videotape police officers during stops, as a means of monitoring them.
"Most people out there believe that it's illegal to photograph or videotape police officers," he said. "But those who are informed know that that's not the case. Those are police officers who don't want eyes and ears out in the streets. If you have nothing to hide, if you're not doing anything wrong, then there shouldn't be a problem being videotaped."
One of the organizers, Steve Kohut, is with the group Justice Committee, and said he'd been stopped without reasonable cause by officers beginning in his early teens.
"If you can tell them, and knowingly tell them that you don't give them the consent to search in your pockets, then they know you know your rights," said Kohut. "It sometimes prevents them from violating you. Because they know they're dealing with somebody who's educated about their rights."
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne rejected the charge that officers single out minorities.
"We're out there saving lives, and we do it in an unbiased way," said Browne. "And we do it with the most diverse department in the country."
Browne added that officers were deployed only to areas where they are needed.
"Over 96 percent of shootings and homicides were committed by blacks and Hispanics -- stops happen in dangerous neighborhoods."
"We protect and save lives in minority neighborhoods," he said. "That's why 3,000 fewer black men are dead in the first eight years of [the] Bloomberg [administration] than in the first eight of Giuliani."