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Why I Trained My Lens on NYC Stop and Frisk Laws and How You Can Help

In the wake of President Obama’s re-election, we may forget how much race truly matters in present-day America. Unfortunately, it does. It's a day-to-day reality for countless individuals, dividing us along lines of housing, social services, employment, and above all criminal enforcement.

In 2002, the New York City Police Department began drastically ramping up a practice that it refers to as Stop, Question, and Frisk. From just under 98,000 stops in 2002, the numbers skyrocketed to 680,000 stops in 2011.

Yet, ask around and much of the city has barely even heard of this practice.

This is because the racial disparities in the implementation of Stop, Question & Frisk are staggering. 87 percent of New York City residents stopped by the police are people of color. For New Yorkers in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn or the Bronx, getting stopped has become a daily ritual.

For the past two years, I have been directing a documentary about a class action lawsuit, Floyd v. The City of New York, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The lawsuit alleges that the NYPD routinely engage in racial profiling while conducting Stop, Question and Frisks.

My work on this documentary has led me to interview dozens of New Yorkers from all over the city. I’ve talked with residents of Harlem and the Bronx, of Fifth Avenue and Brooklyn. I have encountered a lot of passion and doses of outrage, but most of all I’ve seen sadness. Nearly everyone who has been stopped feels they were treated in a disrespectful and aggressive manner by the police. By their own police force.

And they’re not exaggerating. Citywide, force is used by the police in almost a full quarter of all stops. In certain precincts, force is applied more than half of the time. For many New York residents, just stepping out of the door entails the risk of encountering violence. Not from criminals. From their own police.

“It’s getting to the point where I feel as though we’re being patrolled instead of being protected," one Bronx resident I interviewed said. "It’s as if they want us to stay confined in our homes.”

We can only begin to ask ourselves what sort of effect this is having on communities around New York. We can however surmise what it is doing to relationships between the police and the communities they are sworn to protect. Most pertinently, we can imagine the distress this causes countless innocent people, who have been stopped, harassed, and far too often physically assaulted by their own police.

Only 6 percent of these stops lead to an arrest. Only 0.15 percent of these stops turn up a gun. Yet, in the words of Todd Clear, Dean of the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, 100 percent of these stops do something to that person being stopped, to that police officer conducting the stop, and to the people who are watching the stop.

The police should be allowed to Stop, Question and Frisk. But they should do it with courtesy and respect, and without bias. For the moment, this is not the case.

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Image (cc) flickr user World Can't Wait

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