Kathleen Horan, Reporter, WNYC News
Kathleen Horan is a staff reporter for New York Public Radio, covering the neighborhood beat. She also reports 'Reset', an ongoing series documenting police-community relations in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
You may think that stop and frisk as a political issue has been with us forever. But you'd be wrong. It's only been two years since the issue has been a mainstream controversy — one that threatens to tarnish Mayor Michael Bloomberg's considerable positive achievements in reducing crime. This is the story of how that happened -- the next installment in our series "New York Remade: The Bloomberg Years"
When Bloomberg took office, he made a point of setting a tone of inclusiveness. In 2002, right after his inauguration, he addressed Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network in Harlem, something Rudy Giuliani refused to do.
"I would hope that you invite me for each of the four years that the voters of the City of New York have given me and I'll be pleased to come every time," Bloomberg said as the audience erupted in relieved applause. The applause lasted a long time.
Civil libertarians were hopeful about Bloomberg's choice for Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly. "Kelly came in having taken a public position before his most recent tenure against abusive policing practices," recalled Chris Dunn, Associate Legal Director with the NYCLU. "He had been vocal talking about community relations and community policing."
But in his second turn as Police Commissioner, Kelly’s approach was more aggressive. During those early years, he was ramping up the stop, question and frisk tactic. Stops went from 97,296 in 2002 to 506,491 just four years later.
In neighborhoods with a lot of police activity, doubts began to emerge. “The kids didn't do anything — they just frisked them, knocked them and put them into the car...all the kids are not bad," said lifelong Brooklyn resident, 63-year-old Gloria Freeman, who witnessed three youths being detained in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Complaints about stops with the Civilian Complaint Review Board rose as the number of stops increased, reaching a peak of 2,557 in 2007. Even so, for a wide swath of New Yorkers, it was off the radar.
"I'm 69 years old, I've lived in New York City all my life and policing has never been a mainstream political issue,” observed Robert Gangi, who heads a group called the Police Reform Organizing Project.
After PROP was created in 2011, Gangi said it worked with other like-minded groups to form a movement against abusive policing tactics. One of their main goals was to make stop and frisk a top-tier political issue.
"I had more than one conversation with people I would call politically astute and I told them that was a principal goal. They looked at me as if I announced plans to put on a cape and go up on the building and try to fly."
But after Bloomberg was elected to a third term, that perception changed. New data was released showing that the police made 685, 724 stops in 2011— a new, all-time high. “There had been more young black men stopped than there were young black men in the entire city population," said Chris Dunn. In close to 90 percent of the stops, police found no wrongdoing.
At the silent march against stop and frisk that June 2012, several thousand demonstrators lined Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Three mayoral candidates were among them: Christine Quinn, William Thompson and Bill de Blasio. It was a signal that opposition was becoming politically potent.
That month, Bloomberg visited a pair of black churches in Brooklyn — including First Baptist Full Gospel Church of Brownsville. He promised more oversight of stop and frisk. For the first time, he acknowledged problems. "I believe the practice needs to be mended, not ended, to ensure that stops are conducted appropriately with as much courtesy as possible," he said. Bloomberg has not repeated the statement since.
Parishioner Helen Wilson heard that speech. ”When they stop them on the streets for no reason and push them up against the wall, I think that's not a good thing," said the somber-looking 58-year-old, who admitted to worrying about her eight grandsons.
Earlier this year as a federal class action suit against stop and frisk was making headlines, Bloomberg addressed officers at police headquarters, within spitting distance of the courthouse. He rebutted critics who suggest the tactic doesn't recover enough guns. "Wrong! That's the reason we need it — to deter people from carrying guns. We are the first preventers...," he said.
Within a couple of months, the mayor became more explicit. On his weekly radio show, Bloomberg remarked that critics kept saying that a disproportionate number of people being stopped were from a particular ethnic group. "That may be, but it's not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe...in that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little," he said.
The Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald said Bloomberg and Kelly will be remembered for one of the most sustained drops in crime in the city's history. But MacDonald thinks the mayor would have served himself if he would have invited residents who had benefited from the drop in crime to make that case. "I would have liked to have seen more of the law abiding — especially the elderly — presented and say it is these people we are responding to in determining our deployment decisions," said MacDonald
Commissioner Kelly did just that a few months ago in Bedford-Stuyvesant when he attended an annual neighborhood event supporting the group Grandmother's Love over Violence, near the 81st precinct. Kelly has had a monthly breakfast with the women for the past two years.
Some of the members, including 56-year-old Denise Peace of Bushwick, say they've asked the Commissioner about the disrespectful way some stops are conducted. But after what she's survived, Peace said she supports just about any effort by the police to curb shootings.
"I lost three of my children to gun violence. Three. I'm here because they support me and I support them. I don’t have nobody to frisk anymore," she said.
Murders in Brooklyn dropped below 150 last year, another record low. Kelly said, "What does it translate to? It translates into lives saved. It translates into mostly young lives saved…because that it who are being shot on the streets of our city."
Bloomberg and Kelly do receive high marks in many parts of the city. As a lifelong New Yorker, Alycea Ungaro is pleased with how much the crime rate has dropped and she supports stop and frisk. "I'm for safety, so I just feel like yeah, go ahead, check.” But Ungaro said she understands other people’s objections to it.
In August, Judge Shira Scheindlin found the NYPD has been violating the constitution. In her decision, she wrote, "The city's highest officials have turned a blind eye to evidence that officers have conducted stops in a discriminatory manner." She added, "In their zeal to defend a policy they believe to be effective they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof…"
There have been 87 fewer murders so far this year and the city is on track to fall below last year's record low number of homicides. Stops are also down 50 percent compared to this quarter last year.