Photo by Sean MacEntee
New York is still reeling from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, but weather hasn’t been the only thing to come along and fuck with their streets in the past few months. The NYPD’s controversial Stop & Frisk policy is a sort of pick and choose search warrant for anyone’s pockets, which has been exploited by officers against young people in the black and Latino communities. In October, King of Kong director Ross Tuttle released a short film highlighting the experience of a 17-year-old of Puerto Rican origin who recorded shockingly violent and offensive audio of two police, after being stopped and searched, including threats to “break his fucking arm” and arrest him for “being a fucking mutt”.
The New York Civil Liberties Union are determined to prove this was not an isolated event. They teamed up with I’m Getting Arrested creator Jason Van Anden to create a Stop & Frisk Watch app, in the hope that a greater body of evidence will pressure the Bloomberg administration into rethinking the whole shit-show. Since using smartphones to highlight discriminatory policies is something of a hobby of mine, I called up Jennifer Carnig of the NYCLU to talk about this kind of revolutionary invention.
VICE: Hi Jen! So, what’s the deal with all the Stop & Frisks?
Jennifer Carnig: Under the Bloomberg Administration we’ve seen the number of street stops skyrocket, since the mayor first took office there’s been a 600 percent increase in stops of innocent people. Out of that increase, nearly 90 percent of people targeted are black or Latino males, and nine out of ten are innocent. It’s a really serious problem that is infringing on people's fundamental rights. How can they get away with stopping such a skewed percentage of the population? They tend to go to "high crime areas", but of course just because you live in a high crime area, that doesn’t make you a criminal. Most people who live in high crime areas are just going about their business, obviously.
In Ross Tuttle’s film an anonymous NYPD officer alleges that his captain would come into the station and say “We need 250 [stop & frisks] today.” How bad are police quotas?
We’re very concerned about quotas. They’re illegal for a start. We’re hoping to bring in legislation that will see an end to them completely.
It’s a poorly guarded secret that quotas are in place, if they’re illegal how do they justify them?
They call them ‘performace benchmarks’ but essentially that translates as policing quotas.
Do you think policing quotas and racial profiling are intrinsically linked?
Yes, absolutely. We call it "a tale of two cities". In some neighbourhoods every police interaction is fine but then in other neighbourhoods, particularly those with large communities of colour, it’s a much different story.
Have there been any protests against racial policing?
On Father's Day there was a silent march to show opposition to stop and frisk. It was really powerful to see tens of thousands of people marching in total silence.
Apparently the majority of arrests made during stop and frisks are for marijuana possession, which isn’t technically illegal in New York, is that true?
In New York if you have less than 7/8ths of an ounce and it’s not in public view then it’s a violation rather than a crime, like running a stoplight. The one thing that I would note is that out of the nearly 700,000 stop and frisks that took place in 2011 only about 6 percent of people were arrested. So it’s a small number of people that are ever actually arrested and I think this highlights the futility of the program. It’s not working.
Do you think the recorded incident highlighted in Tuttle's film was typical of how Stop & Frisks can go down?
There were nearly 700,000 street stops last year so I don’t think it’s safe to say there’s a typical experience, but we’ve heard very similar stories. Stop & Frisk can be a very miserable experience for people; it can really dehumanise them. Another ramification is the generations of young people who are growing up thinking that they don’t have the basic rights they deserve. The guy who recorded that audio had cops for parents, so at least he knew what was happening to him was wrong. A lot of kids don’t know any different.
So what does your app do?
With the click of a button people can record what the police are doing, which is a really innovative way to empower individuals. It’s important to exploit what the stop and frisk actually looks like, there’s definitely a misconception that it’s a very polite interaction.
We’ve also included a feature that sends out an alert to community monitoring groups when a search is taking place, meaning that they can immediately locate and observe the action.
Stop & Frisk Watch was designed by Jason Van Anden, who also created the "I’m getting arrested" app, should we expect more apps which can protect civil liberties?
Yeah absolutely, we hope so. It’s a really wonderful thing that we’re able to bring new kinds of protection to a younger tech-savvy generation. The more it can happen the better.
What does Bloomberg make of it?
Well, he went to a church and gave a sermon about how awful we are. He said we were "no better than the NR!"
Hmm, that's not encouraging.. Is there an alternative way to monitor police offenses?
New York City has the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is (in theory) a watchdog body for the police, so yes if you experience something inappropriate with a police officer you can file a complaint with them. Unfortunately nothing much happens after that, and most people consider it an entirely meaningless process. Anyway the police department controls how any officer is going to be punished (or not) so it seems kind of pointless to a lot of people.
Is there any lobbying to change the system?
NYCLU are pushing to have four bills passed before the city council, one of which would create an NYPD inspector general who could provide a crucial layer of accountability and oversight over the police department. We’re lobbying right now and hopefully it’ll be passed by the end of the year.
Thanks Jen, good luck!
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey
More from the city that's so good we wrote these blog posts about it: