Campaigning against the stop-and-frisk practice shouldn’t stop there. The fight should also be against marijuana arrests and racist policing, or perhaps just plainly against cops. Stop-and-frisk is only a single aspect of the manifold problems plaguing New York City through its police force and justice system.
One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign cornerstones was his pledge to bring an end to the discriminatory procedure. But while the NYPD has certainly used stop-and-frisk to profile and harass young blacks and Hispanics, curbing the policy is not enough.
Indeed, de Blasio has already presided over a dramatic drop in stop-and-frisks. NYPD statistics this year show that its officers conducted less than 15,000 stop-and-frisks between January 1 and March 31, whereas there were nearly 100,000 such stops in the same span in 2013. Nevertheless, the NYPD under de Blasio is on pace to match the more than 28,600 low-level marijuana arrests that occurred last year under Bloomberg.
Roughly one-in-seven arrests in New York City are for marijuana. Swathes of young people of color are still put in ruinous contact with the criminal justice system for possessing small amounts of pot. It is, as CUNY sociologist and marijuana arrest researcher Harry Levine and others have put it, a “disgrace.”
It’s important to parse the different but related problems of stop-and-frisk and marijuana arrests. Stop-and-frisk was used illegally by police to meet NYPD quotas — as testimony from officers in a federal class-action lawsuit made clear last year — resulting in a number of low-level drug arrests. But a staggering 88 percent of the more than 5 million stops carried out under Bloomberg didn’t result in an arrest. Of those 5 million-plus individuals, more than 86 percent were black or Hispanic.
Whether it prompts an arrest or not on any given day, a system of police harassment that targets the city’s minorities simply must end. But since so many of these stops don’t lead to a bust, lessening the number of stops has a negligible effect at best on the problem of marijuana arrests, as demonstrated by the recent statistics.
To be sure, eliminating stop-and-frisk — the sort preemptive policing that profiles young blacks and Hispanics as “criminal” — is crucial. But it’s evidently not enough to stop the NYPD’s propensity for making low-level drug arrests. With Bill Bratton reinstated as police commissioner, we can expect nothing less than a continuing assault on minor infractions like pot possession. Under Bratton, the godfather of zero-tolerance “broken windows” policing, arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on the subway system and of non-violent, low-level offenders in housing projects have spiked, purportedly on the tenuous assumption that such harassment prevents more serious crimes.
Marijuana arrests fit neatly within a policing structure that targets members of poor and minority communities for doing what should never be deemed criminal in the first place.
It’s mildly comforting, then, that some pockets of the criminal justice system aren’t blind to the need for reform. Ken Thompson, Brooklyn’s district attorney, is preparing a plan to stop prosecuting low-level pot possession. Thompson noted in a leaked memo to the NYPD that he hopes to enact policies in which “individuals, and especially young people of color, do not become unfairly burdened and stigmatized by involvement in the criminal justice system for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property.” This view reminds us that the entire criminal justice system, not just the police, has let paltry marijuana violations ruin so many lives in the four decades since Nixon inaugurated an ill-conceived war on drugs.
Stop-and-frisk has been a worthy focus of anti-racist activism on behalf of civil liberties and human rights — an effort that succeeded in bringing discriminatory policing into harsh public view. But stop-and-frisk is not the be-all and end-all of racist policing. The fight against that practice must be regarded as just one battle in the larger struggle against a criminal justice system that is stacked against poor and minority communities.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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