Since a federal judge ruled last week that the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk techniques was unconstitutional, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly have staunchly defended this law enforcement tactic, continuing to credit the practice with significant reductions in violent crime. Both men have outrageously suggested that these routine encounters with law enforcement actually save the lives of Black and brown people — because, of course, helping us to feel safer is the goal.
I have experienced police harassment. Several years ago, my friend left her wallet in the cashier line at a store. As we were leaving, she pulled into the fire lane and ran in to retrieve it, with the permission of a store security patrol, who sat right behind us in his car while she went inside. A Black male police officer pulled up, demanded to know why we were there, and then demanded our licenses.
When I tried to explain that the security officer had given us permission to park there, and indeed was still waiting behind us in plain view of the officer, the cop told me curtly that the security guard had no authority to give us permission. When I questioned why the officer was giving us a hard time and being ridiculous, he threatened to hit me with his billy club! When I let him know that he had no right to do such a thing, he threatened to charge me with disturbing the peace (of the shoppers who had stopped to witness him hassling two young coeds, I guess).
The biggest threat to that officer was that I asked questions, and that I knew I had a right to do so. He felt threatened that we were not cowed by his show of state-sanctioned force. In that moment, it became about the officer’s ego and about his assertion of power, about his need to maintain control, although he was the only one out of control. So, too, is the logic of stop-and-frisk, or stop-question-frisk as the NYPD likes to refer it. Within these encounters, ordinary citizens who are in 90 percent of cases found to be carrying no contraband, are stripped of their rights to ask questions. They are subjected to routine humiliations at the hands of law enforcement without recourse.
More than 10 years later, I still have a deep mistrust of the police. This is what happens in a culture obsessed with using state force to maintain law and order rather than to protect and to serve. That officer had an opportunity to be of service to us that night, simply by making sure my friend had retrieved her wallet, and that we were safely on our way. Instead, he chose to focus on maintaining law and order.