Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Stop the "Stop and Frisk" Database of Innocent People

Just last week, I found myself blasting NY Times columnist Bob Herbert for his one-sided, factually deficient article hailing the Harlem Village Academy charter school and its exceedingly well-paid CEO, Deborah Kenny. In today's Times, Mr. Herbert redeemed himself on a different but not wholly unrelated topic, and I am compelled to praise him for that.

Mr. Herbert's latest column describes the NYPD's stop and frisk policy, a "crime prevention" program under which police stop, check out, and frisk any NYC citizens they wish for any reason they wish. There need be no probable cause, although being a young black or Hispanic male is apparently considered cause enough. One need only imagine being man-handled up against the nearest wall, spread-eagled in public, or forced to lie face down on the street to contemplate how jarring and humiliating this must be.

According to Mr. Herbert, nearly three million such stops have been made in the past six years, with a record 575,000 made last year. Given that the Mayor's accountability notions extend to NYPD and its incident database, increasing numbers of such stops should not be surprising -- even precinct commanders want to get A's on their report cards.

I leave up to the Civil Liberties Union, the courts, and sociologists to figure out whether such stop-and-frisks are legal, whether they are effective in crime control, what impact they create in the communities where they occur (particularly among younger people), and how they affect police/community relations. Even Mr. Herbert is vague on some of this, suggesting for example that in some way nearly twelve percent of those stopped had done something wrong (maybe an outstanding bench warrant, or perhaps having a joint in their possession?).

At least as disconcerting as the stops themselves, however, is what happens afterward. Reports of each stop are apparently fed into an NYPD database, including personal data of the individuals who were stopped. So in the last six years, NYPD has compiled a database of nearly 2.8 million people (51.6% Black, 30.2% Hispanic, 10.3% White). That's 2.8 million people (at least) on NYPD "suspect" databases, equal to 33.5% of NYC's 8.36 million population (as estimated by the US Census Bureau at the end of 2008). That's equal to one-third of all NYC residents. Worse still, some 2.5 of the 2.8 million were not only not committing a crime at the time, they had never done anything wrong other than being deemed "frisk-worthy" by some beat cops.

According to Mr. Herbert, the resulting database is considered by NYPD Commissioner Kelly to be a permanent tool in the city's crime-fighting repertoire. In other words, if your name goes in for whatever reason, it stays there, even if you have been a completely innocent, law-abiding system your entire life (eerily reminiscent to me of the Tom Cruise movie, "Minority Report"). A spokesperson for Commissioner Kelly apparently justified all this with the stupendously goofy argument that the information might help determine if a person under suspicion in a criminal investigation was at "a certain place at a certain time." The odds against this database being relevant in that manner in a criminal investigation are so astronomically high as to defy the imagination, but the NYPD must indeed relish having a database of names and addresses of (otherwise innocent) "locally suspicious characters." On the flip side, of course, if a bank robbery happens to occur somewhere in NYC at the very moment you are fortunate enough to be being frisked, the NYPD will have proof in their database that you are innocent. Nice to know that our innocence is being so well-protected.

Thankfully, the NYCLU is fighting the NYPD over both the stop and frisk program as well as the permanent retention of the data on people who are innocent. As NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman states, “This is a massive database of innocent, overwhelmingly black and Latino people.” While it is heartening to see the NYCLU involved, it would be good to hear Public Advocate Bill deBlasio speak out loudly and forcefully on this issue and express support for the NYCLU's efforts.

Since young black and Hispanics are no doubt key targets for these stops, the NYPD database likely contains the names of any number of completely innocent high-school-age children. At the absolute very least, data on any stopped individual under age eighteen who has done nothing wrong should be prohibited from entering the NYPD database. Through its control of School Safety, NYPD is already doing enough to criminalize "typical teen" behavior that teachers and school administrators have long dealt with in much better ways. Adding the names of school-aged children to a permanent NYPD "stop-and-frisk" database, with its inherent implication for life of suspected wrong-doing (Why else would a police officer have stopped and frisked you?), is simply intolerable.

Thanks again to Bob Herbert for shining more light on another officially condoned, post-9/11 intrusion into citizens' privacy rights adopted in the name of protecting us from harm.


NYC Educator said...

Personally, I don't think you redeem yourself for utter ignorance on one topic by being correct on another, particularly when you're a writer for the New York Times. If you're being paid to write for an outfit like that, it kind of behooves you to think things through, even if Bill Gates doesn't want you to.

Steve Koss said...

Nor did I say that Mr. Herbert was redeemed -- I've had my issues with his columns in the past. On this occasion, however, I think he makes some valuable points and sheds some useful light on a little-known NYPD policy and practice. I still find his column on Harlem Village Academy disgracefully unprofessional, but I also believe in giving credit where credit is due. I would have done no different with one of my students.

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