A win against racial profiling

January 17, 2013

Wesley House reports on a decision against part of the "stop-and-frisk" program.

IN A welcome decision, a judge recently ruled a portion of the New York Police Department's racist "stop-and-frisk" program unconstitutional.

Ruling as part of the lawsuit Ligon v. the City of New York, Federal District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin found that the NYPD has systematically crossed constitutional lines by subjecting residents to unreasonable searches and unjustifiable arrests. Specifically, the judge ruled unconstitutional "Operation Clean Halls," the Bronx component of the Trespass Affidavit Program (TAP), which police claim is designed to help combat drug dealing in the public areas of private apartment buildings.

Judge Scheindlin found that simply "exiting and entering a building does not establish reasonable suspicion," regardless of the time of day, and ordered the NYPD to "cease making trespass stops outside of private residential buildings in the Bronx."

"While it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the NYPD has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops" outside Bronx buildings, she said.

A New York police officer stops young men in Brooklyn
A New York police officer stops young men in Brooklyn

Operation Clean Halls permitted officers to perform "vertical patrols" and searches in the hallways of privately owned apartment buildings. Over 3,000 buildings are enrolled in the TAP program throughout the city, but in the Bronx these aggressive, humiliating searches were executed almost exclusively on Black and Latino residents. The New York Civil Liberties Union reported that in 2011, officers stopped 1,137 of the 1,857 residents in TAP buildings in the Bronx.

UNSURPRISINGLY, THE grassroots activism that has directly confronted this racist police program and surveillance has been omitted from the mainstream press. However, the victory in the courtroom would not have been possible without the work of activist campaigns, solidarity movements, collaborative organizing and, most importantly, struggles rooted in the communities that continue to be directly affected by the NYPD's systematic attacks.

Years of struggle has created a climate that has exposed the racist nature of stop-and-frisk, shifted public opinion, and forced some politicians to begin to take a stand.

Several individuals and organizations have conducted "cop watches" to expose police wrongdoing. Long-time activist Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, has spent years monitoring police conduct through filming stop-and-frisks as they take place in Harlem and posting them on the website All Things Harlem.

Coalition-building organizations including the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), Silvia Rivera Law Project and the Audre Lorde Project provided space and resources for community activists to organize, strategize, and plan actions. They utilized nearly every social media platform, as well as petition drives, protests and public forums in order to bring the issue of police accountability into mainstream political discussions.

"Know Your Rights" educational campaigns launched by the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union took aim at police intimidation by educating youth on how to safely deal with police confrontation. And these organizations have painstakingly documented the statistics on the stop-and-frisk program, exposing its racist nature with hard facts.

Other organizations, including "Stop Stop-and-Frisk" have utilized civil disobedience and organized protests, as well as distributed thousands of buttons to raise awareness about the program.

Fierce protests outside the Bronx Supreme Court during the trial of police officer Richard Haste--who shot and killed African American teen Ramarley Graham after racially profiling him--as well as in front of the Manhattan District Attorney's office during hearings of activist Jazz Hayden--who was targeted by police for his anti-brutality activism--showed the courts that police are not exempt from acknowledging basic human rights.

Nonviolent marches led by members of Occupy Wall Street demanded the resignation of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and a halt to police attacks on peaceful protests.

College campuses similarly became a hotspot for mobilizing and organizing against police surveillance and brutality, with families of the victims of police brutality and murder touring campuses throughout the city and college students getting involved in campaigns against police brutality.

In June, a silent march against stop-and-frisk and for an end to racial profiling drew some 15,000 people, pushing Mayor Michael Bloomberg back onto his heels and forcing him to defend the program.

These are only a handful of the many initiatives and movements that have taken place to bring police accountability to the forefront of political discussion.

IN THE past year, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has called out social justice advocates and minority leaders, claiming that their actions are doing nothing to actually combat crime in minority neighborhoods.

Kelly's systematic deployment of officers into "high-crime areas" has put communities of color under siege--subjecting entire neighborhoods to humiliating, aggressive and unjustified searches. Meanwhile, the larger structural causes of crime--including poverty and unemployment--are completely ignored.

In a scathing response to Scheindlin's decision in Ligon, Kelly claimed that "people will die as a result" of this "unnecessary interference with department efforts to use all crime-fighting tools necessary to keep Clean Hall buildings safe and secure."

"Through 'Clean Halls,'" he added, "the police have worked to provide a modicum of safety for less prosperous tenants." But Kelly's program has swept up thousands of "less prosperous" New Yorkers--the vast majority of them people of color--into systematic, sometimes daily, police harassment.

Similarly, Mayor Bloomberg's claim that stop-and-frisk has made the public "safe in ways they have not been in modern memory" is especially outrageous considering that the NYPD has killed 221 people since the infamous killing of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999. For the families and friends left to mourn those murdered by police, claims that the stop-and-frisk benefits ordinary New Yorkers is a sick farce. Bloomberg's definition of "safety" is dependent on the racist surveillance of an economically disenfranchised population.

While the ruling against "Operation Clean Halls" is an important victory, opponents of stop-and-frisk will have to keep up the pressure. Judge Scheindlin will be hearing two more legal challenges to stop-and-frisk later this year: Davis v. the City of New York focuses on police stops in New York City public housing, while Floyd v. the City of New York is a broader lawsuit that accuses Commissioner Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg, police and the city of routinely violating the First and Fourth Amendment rights of thousands of New Yorkers affected by stop-and-frisk on a daily basis.

"An important issue will be building on this key success to push for a ban on stop-and-frisk in all settings," stated anti-racist activist Lee Wengraf. "This is a significant reform, but police practices have become entrenched and we still have ground to cover. But for a major ruling like this to come out of New York City is critical because it reverberates nationally and challenges fundamental assumptions of racial profiling."

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