Brandon Gibson remembers the night he was forced out of a car by police officers, their handguns drawn. He and friends were pulling out of the parking lot of Hope Christian Center, a church on New Lots Avenue in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. They had barely driven out of the lot when the plainclothes cops approached them, weapons aimed, and ordered the men to put their hands on the dashboard.
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They got out of the car. The officers patted them down, then searched the vehicle. They wouldn't tell them why they were being stopped.
“I asked, 'Can I get your name? Your badge number?'” Gibson recalls asking. “My friends told me to shut up. They were afraid. I wasn't so much afraid. I was angry.”
Those two words — fear and anger — come up often with those who recall their experiences with “stop, question, and frisk,” the New York Police Department tactic where officers perform street stops and searches on people they deem suspicious. The practice has garnered criticism for years, in part because the NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk has risen astronomically over the last decade, and because the overwhelming majority of residents who get stopped are people of color.
Opposition to the tactic rose anew this spring after an analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union showed large disparities among precincts in the number of police stops and the use of force during those encounters, and little success by the program in generating arrests or recovering firearms.
The NYPD touts stop-and-frisk as an essential tool in fighting crime. In a press release in March, the department said the tactic “has dramatically reduced murders in the city's most violent-prone neighborhoods.” Indeed, the city's crime rate has declined dramatically over the last two decades, though not everyone agrees that the drop is connected to stop-and-frisk.
Critics of the practice, of which there are many — advocacy groups, community associations and a roster of city elected officials among them — argue that street stops do little to make neighborhoods safer, and instead violate the rights of residents and alienate communities from the police officers who are paid to protect them.
John Fleming, 17: “I actually feel like a criminal, and I didn't even do anything.”
In the face of mounting criticism this spring, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in May announced new measures to train officers, increase supervision and keep tabs on stops. But it's unclear that these measures will result in fewer street encounters.
East New York, a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood in far eastern Brooklyn that borders on Queens, might be considered the epicenter of stop-and-frisk. Officers from the local 75th Precinct conducted more streets stops than any other precinct in the entire city last year, frisking 31,100 people, according to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Each NYPD precinct is divided into sectors around which patrols are organized. There are 13 NYPD sectors within the 75th Precinct, and in 2011, the most stops — 4,628 — occurred in Sector E, an area bordered by Van Sinderen Avenue to the west, Vermont Street to the east, Atlantic Avenue to the north and Dumont Avenue to the south, just three blocks from where Gibson and his friends were forced from their car. Last year, more people were stopped by police in this seven-by-nine block area alone than in the entirety of 17 precincts in the city. More stops occurred in sector E than in the 123rd (South Shore, Staten Island) and 94th (Greenpoint) precincts combined.
Gibson, a youth minister at Hope Christian Center, says most young men in the neighborhood are accustomed to being stopped by cops.
“Several times a week, several times a month, they assume the position,” he says. “It's become so normalized.”
Like cops and robbers
Sector E looks like many outer borough neighborhoods. Bodegas dot the corners. Residential streets of row houses and storefront churches are broken up by more industrial zones, where auto body shops fill the blocks. There are two major public housing complexes, two public high schools and a post office.
Judah Brothers Boxing Gym is on the first floor of a two-story building at the corner of Liberty Avenue and New Jersey Avenue, a short block from the Liberty Avenue A-train subway station, where 86 people were stopped and questioned by police last year, according to NYPD data.
The men who work out at Judah Brothers know plenty about stop-and-frisk. Young men of color are the prime demographic for stops — according to the NYCLU, over 40 percent of those stopped in 2011 were black and Latino males between 14 and 24.
“I'm used to that. They're always doing it,” said Ariel Judah, 35. He's tall, thin, and with a boyish face that makes him look much younger than he is. He says he was stopped recently while walking from the gym down Liberty Avenue, to a nearby corner store.
“'Where are you going? Do you live around here?'” the officer quizzed him.
“When I see a cop, I'm trying to get away from them,” Judah says. “I don't have time for that.”
Derrick Strong, 41, a martial arts instructor at the gym, often hears stories about stops from the young men he trains. Like Judah, many will take pains to actively avoid police officers — crossing to the other side of the street, or driving a different route home after a workout.
“I have my students that, literally, they have to watch their backs,” Strong says.
Many of those interviewed for this story say the problem is not necessarily the stops themselves, but how they're carried out — with an aggressiveness they say exceeds the bounds of normal policing. Many reported being cursed at by officers. Others say they've been frisked against walls, or the hoods of cars. Almost everyone recounted feeling threatened, or disrespected.
“They run up on these young men, and it's not just stop-and-frisk, it's get down on the ground,” says Mustafa Marconi, 50, a boxing coach at Judah Brothers who grew up in the neighborhood.
“I've been in East New York my whole life. Being stopped by the police is nothing new to me,” he says. “It's not that they stop you and frisk you. They talk to you like you're a piece of garbage.”
The police department's stop-and-frisk database aims to keep track of the use of force during stops. In 2011, the database suggests that officers in Sector E placed their hands on suspects — a form of force — 511 times, placed suspects against a wall 28 times and forced them to the ground five times. Officers pointed their gun at a suspect five times and drew their gun without pointing it on three occasions. (Some of the statistics on use of force clash with other information in the database: police made 123 arrests but, according to the force data, only handcuffed 57 suspects.
What crimes did police suspect people of before stopping them in sector E last year?
Further south from the gym in Sector E are two NYCHA public housing developments, Unity Plaza and the Long Island Baptist houses, in a hotbed-area for police stops. Officers performed over 700 stops at eight different locations around the complexes last year, an analysis of NYPD data shows — two stops every day of the year.
Bob Baxon, a 38-year-old who lives in a NYCHA building on Blake Avenue, says that during the span of just one day last month, he was stopped by different officers seven times. He assumes something was happening in the area — a shooting, or a robbery, perhaps — but the police gave him no concrete reasons for the repeated stops.
“They say, 'Oh, this is a crime-infested area.' So what does that mean? I'm a criminal because I'm black?” Baxon says.
“I live a productive life. I take care of my kids, I work,” he says. “I guarantee they're not stopping those white people.” (Less than 10 percent of the population in East New York is white, but whites can be seen walking the neighborhood in the daytime. Of the 4,500 stops in sector E during 2011 where police records identify the race of the subject, 1.6 percent involved non-Hispanic whites and 16 percent white Hispanics.)
A 24-year-old NYCHA resident, who declined to give his name but said he goes by the neighborhood nickname “Speedy,” says he's been stopped numerous times.
“The only good place you can be without being harassed is in your house,” he says.
Another block away, on Pennsylvania Avenue, is the Thomas Jefferson High School campus, a hulking brick building that houses seven city public schools. In 2011, 161 stops were made at the nearby corner of Pennsylvania and Blake Avenues. Jeffrey Nelson — a doe-eyed, soft-spoken 17-year-old who goes to school at the Thomas Jefferson campus — says he's been stopped by police officers four times. They patted him down, searched his pockets, asked for ID.
“I try to get their badge numbers,” says Nelson, a high school junior. “I feel threatened.”
Many young men here say they are locked in a constant battle with law enforcement, where both sides regard one another with hostility and suspicion.
“It's like cops and robbers from way back when,” says 25-year-old Nathaniel Williams, who was lounging on the stoop of his cousin's house on Pennsylvania Avenue, near where the street crosses over Pitkin Avenue. Police performed 320 stops here last year, the highest number for a single location in Sector E.
“It's never gonna change,” Williams says.
A busy precinct
Even the most stringent critics of stop-and-frisk, however, won't deny that officers who work in Brooklyn's 75th Precinct have a difficult job.
In May, the New York Daily News included East New York on its list of “the most trigger-happy precincts.” The 75 had the most murders in the city in 2010, and again in 2011, with 29 homicides logged. The precinct also had the most robberies in the city last year, with a whopping 779, according to the NYPD's Comp Stat numbers. (For context, however, the precinct is one of the city's largest — sprawling across East New York to include the neighborhoods of Cypress Hills, Starrett City and City Line).
The precinct's reputation as one of the roughest beats in well-known. All New York City police officers put their lives at risk for the job, but in East New York, that risk is heightened. In December, Officer Peter Figoski, a 47-year-old father of four, was shot and killed while responding to a break-in at an apartment building in Cypress Hills.
At the 75th Precinct's monthly community council meeting on June 6, NYPD community affairs officer Marcus Johnson apologized to those gathered for being hard to reach — he says he heard complaints from some residents about how community affairs rarely answers the office phone. They're not always at the desk, he explained, because they need to be on the streets, policing.
“You live in a very busy precinct,” Johnson told the crowd. Two people had been shot on Pennsylvania just hours before the meeting, he said.
In early May, a group of black men chatting in front of one of the NYCHA buildings in Sector E were not surprised to hear that their sector was the epicenter of the NYPD's use of street encounters in the precinct. Each of the four men said he'd been stopped too many times to count.
“Not for nothing, though,” said the youngest of the group, a man in his early 30s, “there is a lot of crime.” He says he's been robbed numerous times but scoffs when asked if he reported it. “Nah, man — that's just part of life. I call it a luxury tax,” he said. A second man acknowledged that he always walked with one shoulder close to the buildings he passed to eliminate one potential avenue for attack.
Cynthia Whitaker, the president of the resident association at the Unity Plaza public housing development when we met with her in May, had lived there since 1976 — long enough to have two blood relatives murdered mere steps from the window where she kept watch on Blake Street with a cell phone and a pack of Marlboro reds at hand.
In 2000, her 31-year-old son was murdered just down the block by gang members who, she said, killed him for no other reason than to send a message about their power. During the police investigation, Whitaker says she was threatened by associates of the killers one morning when warming up her car for work. She escaped thanks to a quick foot on the gas pedal and a couple u-turns.
“I'm not totally against stop-and-frisk because sometimes they stop-and-frisk with probable cause. We have drugs and we have guns,” she said. “A lot of police are very friendly. They talk to the residents. You find a select few that's very arrogant.”
She motions just outside the window of her office. Her grandson was killed there last September. He was shot in the back. “And no one's doing anything,” she says. The police need someone to come forward. No one has. “I'm just disgusted.” She's decided to move to a new neighborhood.
Crime in East New York — and across the city — is nothing compared to the mayhem of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the crack epidemic was in full swing, and crime ravaged much of the city. In 1993, for example, 126 people were murdered in the 75th Precinct, meaning murders have gone down 77 percent since then.
Bloomberg and Kelly attribute this dramatic drop in crime, in part, to tactics like stop-and-frisk. And for some here, police presence is something to be praised.
“It was bad before, but it's improved,” said Evelyn Young, who’s lived on Bradford Avenue in East New York for 29 years. “You see more cops around, and you feel safer. It's working.”
Young says won't go out alone at night — “Because I'm a senior,” she explains — and if she does, she makes sure someone drives her, and waits to see that she gets safely inside her apartment building. Even so, the neighborhood today is nothing like the bad old days, which she remembers vividly. She was robbed and beaten once, back in the 70s, when she was walking home from church. It's okay with her if the police decide to stop and search some residents, she says, if it means keeping crime like that at bay.
“They're doing their duty,” Young says. “Watching us, keeping us safe.”
A question of effectiveness
But the NYPD database suggests many of the stops in Sector E during 2011 were not connected to the department's strategy of finding illegal weapons: Possession of a weapon was cited by officers as the suspected crime in a quarter of stops — about 1,100 encounters.
Looking at the precinct as a whole, the rationale for many other stops suggests either a very aggressive effort to solve or prevent crimes or a disconnect between actual crime and police stops: Officers stopped 7,200 people in the 75th under suspicion of “robbery” — about nine stops for every reported robbery in the entire precinct — and stopped 4,500 for “grand larceny auto”; in 2011, there were 322 such car thefts in the precinct. According to the NYPD's website, stop-and-frisk is intended for instances “when a police officer reasonably suspects that a person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor.”
Of those arrested as a result of being stopped in sector E, 33 were booked on drug charges and 25 for criminal trespass. Seventeen were listed as having been busted on weapons charges.
The city denies that the NYPD stops are racially motivated, saying instead that the practice is used most often in areas where the most crime occurs.
“The reason police officers make stops in Brownsville and East New York is not because of race; it is because of crime,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said earlier this month at a church in Brownsville. “Brownsville and East New York remain two of the highest-crime areas in our city. We've cut crime here over the past 10 years, but not by enough. And we are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives.”
Bloomberg said frisks conducted in 2011 led to police confiscating 780 guns, and 5,872 knives and 1,572 other dangerous weapons. “Just as importantly, it unquestionably deterred many from carrying those weapons in the first place,” Bloomberg said.
But critics argue that 780 guns is a small yield, considering that police conducted 381,704 frisks on people last year, according to the NYCLU (The police department conducted 685,724 stops in total.) Of the 4,628 stops conducted in Sector E last year, 2,065 ended in frisks, 22 led to the confiscation of a weapon (four pistols, 15 knives and three other weapons), 123 led to arrests and 300 to summonses.
In the same speech, the mayor pointed to decreases in the number of New York City residents living behind bars as a positive impact from police anti-crime efforts. But while the number of New Yorkers incarcerated is lower these days, overall annual arrests in the city increased 17 percent from 2002 to 2011 — driven by a 31 percent increase in misdemeanor arrests, which include offenses like “criminal trespass” that dominate the busts made as a result of stop-and-frisks.
And as the number of stops performed by police has skyrocketed over the last decade, the number of shootings across the city has remained largely the same, according to an analysis by the news website DNAinfo.com New York earlier this month.
What crimes did police arrest people for after being stopped in sector E last year?
In sector E, some say that while the police presence is strong when it comes to stops and frisks, it's harder to get the attention of the NYPD when it's actually wanted.
“When you need the police in our neighborhood, you can't find them,” said Mustafa Marconi, the boxing coach at Judah Brothers gyms. Several years ago, someone broke into his family's house on New Lots Avenue. He called the police to report it, and when officers arrived at the home, he said they seemed more concerned with interrogating him than with finding the culprits.
“We were calling them about a crime ourselves, and they were giving us the third degree,” Marconi says. If he were robbed again, he says, he wouldn't bother reporting it.
“It's a waste of time,” he says. “They do not remove these drug dealers, they do not remove the crime, but at the same time, you're in this neighborhood harassing everyone. What you're doing is making a community have some really valid animosity towards you.”
Many, like Gibson, question the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk, and worry the tactic undermines police-community relations that are vital to fighting crime.
The integral role community involvement plays in reducing violence came up repeatedly at the 75th Precinct's Community Council meeting earlier this month. In a hot and crowded room at the precinct stationhouse on Sutter Avenue, council president Juan Rodriguez implored everyone to engage with officers, to report crimes to the cops, even if they do it anonymously.
“We need to have these conversations with our local police department,” Rodriguez said. “If you know that guy out there is selling drugs…you have to open your mouth. We really need to step up to the plate, to stop these people who are terrorizing our neighborhood.”
Johnson, the community affairs officer, echoed his point.
“We can't do it alone. We're going to need our eyes and ears,” he told the crowd. “We rely a lot on this community to help us out.”
Bill Wilkins, who manages the East Brooklyn Business Improvement District, said that overall, the 75th Precinct has a good relationship with the area's community groups, and that the leadership at the precinct does an “outstanding” job. Even so, he says, the constant stream of stops, and the suspicion displayed by some officers on the street towards residents, makes it hard for many in the neighborhood to consider the police their ally.
“You really wouldn't feel comfortable divulging information with these individuals,” Wilkins says.
In response to a barrage of criticism, the city has modestly revised its stop-and-frisk policy. Last year, Kelly issued an order saying that street searches on people found carrying small amounts of marijuana should warrant a summons, and not an arrest — something Governor Andrew Cuomo also proposed as a statewide policy earlier this month. The NYPD has added extra training courses for officers that detail how to make a proper stop and search, and the department now requires each precinct to conduct audits of stop-and-frisk data.
But the problem, some say, goes deeper than stop-and-frisk. It rests in the fact that in many police precincts, the officers have no stake in, and no real connection, to the communities they serve. They live somewhere else — Long Island or Westchester — and it's hard to bridge the gap between those places.
Catherine Green is the founder of Arts East New York, in an area a few blocks from Sector E. Her organization teaches art to local youth, so she's heard plenty of stories of police harassment. She was a member of the community council for the 75th Precinct until recently, and says part of the problem lies in the disconnect between officers and residents.
“The hard thing about this precinct is we get the rookie classes so they don't have a good impression of who we are,” she says. “I hear their comments, 'This is the worst neighborhood.' They've been here for a week!”
Wilkins recalls how around the holidays last year, he met a group of new recruits at the 75th Precinct. He mentioned something to the officers about Cool Greys, a type of Michael Jordan sneaker that had just come out and was the most coveted item that year. Every young man in the neighborhood wanted a pair.
“That was the number one gift people wanted under their trees,” he says.
The reference drew nothing but blank stares from the dozens of rookies in the room. Only one officer had heard of Cool Greys.
That story, Wilkins says, is emblematic of the issues at the heart of policing problems in East New York, and at the heart of stop-and-frisk.
“How can you police a community which you really don't know about?” he asks.
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from The Puffin Foundation.