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Is New York's Stop-and-Frisk Era Ending?

We talked to the documentarian behind a new film about the national embarrassment that is the NYPD's routine hassling of young black and Hispanic men.

John Surico

John Surico

Photo courtesy STOP the film

​"The city was on fire."

In his ​latest documentary, ​STOP, Spencer Wolff narrates the trial that took New York by storm, erupting into protests that pit community groups of all races against the cops and City Hall. "One for the history books," as City Councilman Jumaane Williams shouts at one demonstration. "Our kids will be reading about this!" It was a challenge that sought to reform the great Greek tragedy of New York law enforcement and civil rights: stop-and-frisk.

For the past four years, Wolff has followed the life of David Ourlicht, one of the lead plaintiffs in Floyd v. the City of New York, a case that, thanks to a ​ruling by Judge Shira Scheindlin, eventually resulted in the NYPD's unwarranted use of stop-and-frisk being branded unconstitutional. Soon enough, Wolff, a white lawyer, learns that Ourlicht, a young interracial adult, grew up down the block from him in the West Village—but the two men lived in two entirely different versions of New York that were defined, and divided, by the way we view each other. Wolff compares this polarization of realities to a miniature version of apartheid-era South Africa.

But the documentary, which premiered Tuesday night at the IFC Center as a part of the DOC NYC festival, digs at something deeper. Wolff follows the origin of this mentality back to the 1990s, a time when crime was at Mad Max levels in New York, and tracks its growth into an institution under billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (To recap: There were about 700,000 s​tops in 2011, meaning 2,000 stops a day, ​86 percent of which targeted blacks and Latinos.)

I met up with Wolff after the premiere to talk about his film, this notion of two New Yorks, and, of course, the boys in blue.

VICE: For years, stop-and-frisk has been a buzzword both here and nationwide. It was, and still is, an issue that sort of demanded a documentary about it. So at what point did you decide to make one?
Spencer Wolff: Everyone knew we needed a documentary. Ross Tuttle over at the Nation did that amazing piece, The Hunted and the ​Hated, but it was an eight-minute piece. The problem with the craft of filmmaking, or the process of making a film, is you need a story. When I met the Ourlichts, I realized there's a story that can be told there. It also gave me the trial because David was there. It permitted me to tell a story with an evolution. I'll tell you the truth: I made a short film about stop-and-frisk in 2010, and I honestly thought the city would settle the case, as they did with Daniels v. City of New Yo​rk. But they didn't, and Bloomberg dug in his heels.

I already had this story with David as a plaintiff, so I kept filming and filming and filming until it became something. You see the Ourlicht family—you see the grandfather, you see this very interesting transversal history of the city. This is a man who was in an interracial couple in the 1940s. These are issues that are staying with us throughout the years, and it gives us that historical depth to the film. It's very hard to do a stop-and-frisk film with just a lot of people talking about being stopped and how bad it is, unless you have the trial and characters like officer Adil Polanco [who testified against the NYPD]. He carries the second half of the film.

You ended the film with Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing that he will drop the city's appeal. But more importantly, you showed Commissioner Bill Bratton, who you originally started the film with as this architect of stop-and-frisk and data-driven, aggressive policing. So what were your thoughts when you saw the Eric Gar​ner video and ot​hers that showed brutality? You know, these latest instances under de Blasio of police stops gone terribly wrong?
It seemed like all my worst fears of bringing Bratton back. We know with Bratton that change is going to be incremental, as opposed to sudden. I think the NYPD needs a wake-up call, and they don't. There's no accountability! That's a problem, and Polanco talks about this: There's just no accountability. Until there is, nobody is going to worry about what they do, and that's the deepest issue. Last week, City Council Members were promoting the Right to Kn​ow Act, which is really Jumaane, Ritchie Torres, and others. We're going to need to keep legislating and somehow box the NYPD in until we have a structure that provides for accountability for crimes. When a cop commits a crime, it's still a crime.

These are obvious things, and these are the things that don't make a film. This is what's special about filmmaking: You can say all of these things, and we can get our facts right. I'm a lawyer as well, so I can present a case, but the film embodies it, in a certain sense. It embodies what these certain practices really mean, and it tells us without telling. It's there for us to feel. That's why I just ended it with Bratton. Because we feel that; we see it. There's an obvious play in the film that the people defending stop-and-frisk are the white and privileged. It gets back to these two visions of New York, and just to see Mayor Bill de Blasio and Bratton—as much as you like de Blasio, it's just two privileged, white faces, and that's why I decided to end the film there.

With your imagery, there's numerous shots of just a lot of cops on a corner. Like, 15 to 20 cops hanging out. You put those in a couple of times.
Jeffrey A. Fagan, the professor at Columbia who wrote the expert report in the trial, gives those statistics that we have more cops per capita than any other city in the world. But he says, you know, the crime isn't that good; the police aren't really doing anything. We just deal with these cops hanging out on the corner all the times. 

We all knows what happens basically: We have all of these cops to give us a sense of safety. Bloomberg is a businessman, he wants results from his investments, so he embraces CompStat [the NYPD crime data system]. And that came from the Giuliani E​ra, which was less about crime and more about metrics. We get this kind of numbers game, like, well we have all of these police officers, so we better be getting good numbers. It creates these perverse incentives that Fagan talks about. I guess that's what I learned about it. 

Now, it seems as if the NYPD's line of defense is: Well, stops are going down, so it's at a total that is "justifiable." What do you think of this reasoning?
We have Omniprese​nce. We have Broken ​Windows. It's the same tactics by a different name, essentially. That's what I wrote about in my ​article in the Huffington Post, which is that we can intuit from the fact that misdemeanor arrests, especially for low-level marijuana possess​ion and so forth, are the same or higher in the de Blasio administration, that the stops are still happening. They're getting a similar conversation rate, but what happens is that the stops, they don't convert. They don't have to anymore. They don't have quotas from those numbers, just for arrests and summonses. Any stop that is not converted is probably not written down.

I don't know, man, I talk to my friends in Bed-Stuy and East New York, and this Omnipresence, with the floodlights. It's unbelievable. And they call it Omnipresence, you're just like, "Did you actually get this from George Orwell's handbook?" They don't even try to pretend to be less scary. They don't even make that effort, and you just wonder.

Do you think there's this wave slowly happening across the country, with Copwatch, the Ferguson protests that aren't ending, and the idea of NYPD reform?
I don't know, man. Like yes, we're so much farther than we were. Look at David's grandfather; he said he'd honestly never thought he'd see this change in his life.

I know you mentioned that you were a lawyer, and that you're looking to bring this movie to other theaters and cities. So do you think you'll follow in this line of work?
​Yeah, let's hope. I went bankrupt making this film, and now I live at home with my parents. And just time: It was a marathon over four years, and I didn't get other work. I work as a start-up lawyer now to pay my debts; it's completely ridiculous. I was concentrated in international human rights law. It's a tough sell, in a sense. If I can get this around and it leads to other work and I can keep doing this, I would like to. You saw I was speaking French to everyone; I lived in France for four years, and went to law school there. I kinda want to do the same film in Paris, where stop-and-frisk is exactly the same, but they're not allowed to collect any statistics by race. It'd be something where I'd go there, and interview the people being stopped. It'd be interesting to internationalize this.

In the beginning of the film, you bring in this aspect of South Africa, and how stop-and-frisk was reminiscent for you of apartheid. And you bring back the imagery of Mandela at the end. On a lesser scale, since this is a city, not a country, do you think that there is a seminal character like Mandela here, or that there needs to be one? Or is it better off a community-based effort?
I'm glad we don't just have a Mandela. Living in South Africa now that Mandela is gone, the country is losing its way. I think we have a lot of people fighting; we have the Jumaanes, we have the Cornel Wests, we have the Jesse Jacksons, the Judge Shira Scheindlins, the Fagans, and the Polancos, you know? I'm grateful that we have so many actors in this. 

Everyone in Ferguson right now, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, too. We have a much stronger civil society than South Africa, and that's actually what South Africa is grappling with now. The collapse, in a sense, of their civil society. It's not their fault; they just didn't have the infrastructure that we do, and we shouldn't underestimate all the good people out there trying to do good work. We hope for Obama. We hope for de Blasio. We keep hoping for these people, but they keep disappointing us.

Follow John Surico on ​Twitter.