Friday, March 2, 2012

Stop and Frisk, aka, Walking While Black or Brown

According to Vanguard on Current TV, more people are being arrested for marijuana possession in New York City than at any other place or time in history. The great majority of these arrests, in fact almost all of them, are being made for minor possession. This is happening because of a policy which is called stop and frisk. Tens of thousands were arrested for minor marijuana possession last year. That's right, in one year.

The stop and frisk system allows police to stop anyone an officer decides is suspicious. The person is not accused of any crime. All that needs to occur is that a policeman decides that that individual is suspicious. Having stopped that individual for no discernible reason, the policeman then has the right to frisk them. In case you think I'm exaggerating, according to the records of the New York Police Department, yes that's right, the NYPD themselves-they made over 600,000 such stops last year alone! 

If we are to believe the NYPD, the fact that almost 90% of these 600,000 who were stopped were either Black or Hispanic was not a result of blatant racism. That means the Black and Hispanic people in New York City somehow managed to behave in a suspicious manner nine times more frequently than the White people in New York City, and that's ignoring demographics and assuming there are equal numbers of White citizens and Black and Hispanic citizens.

Included in the criteria for suspicious behavior are two very interesting items. One is furtive behavior. This is, of course, means anything the policemen doesn't like about you. Another item is the clothing being worn by an individual. That's right, if the NYPD doesn't like the way you walk, talk, look, or act or if it feels that the fashion choices you have made are unacceptable, they can stop and frisk you.  No other requirement is needed.

Unsurprisingly, the NYPD refused to discuss the matter with the reporter. A prosecutor did agree to be interviewed. She said the stop and frisk policy was to protect people from the danger of guns. Of course, almost no guns are actually found during the searches. The math works out to about one gun found in every 700 stops. What's found most commonly is small amounts of marijuana. It is also interesting to wonder why the NYPD thinks that Blacks and Hispanics are nine times more likely than whites to be carrying a gun. It is an interesting question, isn't it?

How many arrests for small quantities of marijuana being possessed have been made? About 50,000 a year. Please remember, that whatever your position on the possession of marijuana, these are individuals with small amounts of the drug clearly intended for their own personal use. These are not dealers. These are not drug lords.  These are ordinary citizens who were doing the equivalent of caring around a bottle of beer or a pint of whiskey.

But those are legal, you say? Okay then, this is the equivalent of an 20 year old carrying around a bottle of beer or a pint of whiskey. Should such an 20 -year-old be arrested or have the bottle confiscated and be given a citation? That's a fair comparison.

But wait! There's more! In New York City possession of small amounts of marijuana should get you only the equivalent of a traffic ticket. So why are these people being arrested? The answer is that while you are allowed to have a small amount of marijuana for personal use in your possession, you may not have it in public view.  That is grounds for arrest. So how do the police justify an arrest? You won't believe this, but this is the truth. They order the individual they have stopped because he's suspicious or they don't like the clothes he is wearing to empty his pockets.  When he obeys that order and takes the marijuana out of his pocket, it is suddenly in public view! This is the excuse for an arrest.

In other words, the individual is being arrested because he complied with a police order. Of course, if he refuses to empty his pockets, he would then be arrested for refusing to comply with a police order.

The result of this is almost 400,000 arrests for marijuana possession in public view in the last nine years.

Not everyone arrested is formally charged. However, merely being arrested gives you a record. This can lead to a number of consequences including eviction from your apartment, especially of you have had a prior arrest on any charge.

The cost of all of this to the city is $75 million a year. That's just the cost of the prosecutions. The cost of police time, especially considering that most of these arrests result in a release rather than prosecution, must be enormous by comparison.

It's hard to believe that things can be even worse, but they are. A local politician sponsoring legislation to stop these abuses points out the NYPD's own statistics demonstrate that 9 out of 10 of the people stopped are immediately released, on the spot, because they have committed no offense whatsoever. 9 out of 10.

Please remember that all this is taking place in a system which is overloaded with serious cases. The court dockets in New York City are full of robberies, rapes, murders, and other serious crimes. But huge amounts of court time is being spent on charging people with having a small amount of marijuana in public view, after, of course, complying with the police order to put it in public view.

The prosecutor who agreed to be interviewed refused to believe that policemen were ordering people to empty their pockets and then arresting them for having marijuana in public view. This is unsurprising, since if she did believe it, it would be her job to seek the arrest and prosecution of those policeman as such an act would, in fact, be false arrest.

I strongly support effective and fair law enforcement.  I also strongly condemn breaking the law under the color of authority and racism.  In fairness to the NYPD, these stop and frisk abuses can also be interpreted as as much anti poor as anti minority.  Virtually no one is ever stopped and frisked in wealthy or even middle class areas of the city; it's all happening in poverty stricken neighborhoods.  But outright racism or prejudice against the poor, it's still prejudice and it's still an abuse of the police authority of the government--being under the color of authority only makes it worse.

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