Meet The 17-Year-Old Who Blew The Lid Off Racial Profiling With His iPod
On June 3, 2011, three plainclothes New York City Police officers stopped a Harlem teenager named Alvin and two of the officers questioned and frisked him while the third remained in their unmarked car. Alvin secretly captured the interaction on his cell phone, and the resulting audio is one of the only known recordings of stop-and-frisk in action.
In the course of the two-minute recording, the officers give no legally valid reason for the stop, use racially charged language and threaten Alvin with violence. Early in the stop, one of the officers asks, “You want me to smack you?” When Alvin asks why he is being threatened with arrest, the other officer responds, “For being a fucking mutt.” Later in the stop, while holding Alvin’s arm behind his back, the first officer says, “Dude, I’m gonna break your fuckin’ arm, then I’m gonna punch you in the fuckin’ face.”
“He grabbed me by my bookbag and he started pushing me down. So I’m going backwards like down the hill and he just kept pushing me, pushing me, it looked like he we was going to hit me,” Alvin recounts. “I felt like they was trying to make me resist or fight back.”
Alvin’s treatment at the hands of the officers may be disturbing but it is not uncommon. According to their own stop-and-frisk data, the NYPD stops more than 1,800 New Yorkers a day. A New York Times analysis recently determined that more than 20 percent of those stops involve the use of force. And these are only the numbers that the Department records. Anecdotal evidence suggests both figures are much higher.
In this video, exclusive to TheNation.com, Alvin describes his experience of the stop, and working NYPD officers come forward to explain the damage stop-and-frisk has done to their profession and their relationship to the communities they serve. The emphasis on racking up stops has also hindered what many officers consider to be the real work they should be doing on the streets. The video sheds unprecedented light on a practice, cheered on by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, that has put the city’s young people of color in the department’s crosshairs.
Those who haven’t experienced the policy first-hand “have likened Stops to being stuck in an elevator, or in traffic,” says Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This is not merely an inconvenience, as the Department likes to describe it. This is men with guns surrounding you in the street late at night when you’re by yourself. You ask why and they curse you out and rough you up.”
“The tape brings to light what so many New Yorkers have experienced in the shadows at the hands of the NYPD,” says Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP. “It is time for Mayor Bloomberg to come to grips with the scale of the damage his policies have inflicted on our children and their families. No child should have to grow up fearing both the cops and the robbers.”
“This audio confirms what we’ve been hearing from communities of color, again and again,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “They are repeatedly subjected to abusive and disrespectful treatment at the hands of the NYPD. This explains why so many young people don’t trust the police and won’t help the police,” she adds. “It’s not good for law enforcement and not good for the individuals who face this harassment.”
The audio also betrays the seeming arbitrariness of stops and the failure of some police officers to fully comprehend or be able to articulate a clear motivation for carrying out a practice they’re asked to repeat on a regular basis.
And, according to Charney, the only thing the police officers do with clarity during this stop is announce its unconstitutionality.
“We’ve long been claiming that, under this department’s administration, if you’re a young black or Latino kid, walking the street at night you’re automatically a suspicious person,” says Charney, who is leading a class-action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices. “The police deny those claims, when asked. ‘No, that’s not the reason we’re stopping them.’ But they’re actually admitting it here [on the audio recording]. The only reason they give is: ‘You were looking back at us…’ That does not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion, and there’s a clear racial animus when they call him a ‘mutt.’”
The audio was recently played at a meeting of The Morris Justice Project, a group of Bronx residents who have organized around the issue of stop-and-frisk and have been compiling data on people’s interactions with police. Jackie Robinson, mother of two boys, expected not to be surprised when told about the contents of the recording. “It’s stuff we’ve all heard before,” she said at the gathering. Yet Robinson visibly shuddered at one of the audio’s most violent passages. She had heard plenty about these encounters, but had never actually listened to one in action.
“As a mother, it bothers you,” says Robinson. “The police are the ones we’re supposed to turn to when something bad happens. Of all the things I have to worry about when my kids walk out the door, I don’t want to have to worry about them being harmed by the police. It makes you feel like you can’t protect your children. Something has to be done.”
Officers who carry out such belligerent stops face little accountability under the NYPD’s current structure. The department is one of New York City’s last agencies to operate without independent oversight, leaving officers with no safe place to file complaints about police practice and systemic problems.
“An independent inspector general would be in a position to review NYPD policies and practices—like the recorded stop-and-frisk shown here—to see whether the police are violating New Yorkers’ rights and whether the program is in fact yielding benefits,” says the Brennan Center’s Faiza Patel. “An inspector general would not hinder the NYPD’s ability to fight crime, but would help build a stronger, more effective force.”
NYPD spokespeople have said that stop-and-frisk is necessary to keep crime down and guns off the street. But those assertions are increasingly being contradicted by the department’s own officers, who are beginning to speak out about a pervasive culture of number-chasing.
Two officers from two different precincts in two separate boroughs spoke to The Nation about the same types of pressures put on officers to meet numerical goals or face disciplinary action and retaliation. Most chillingly, both officers use the word “hunt” when describing the relentless quest for summonses, stops and arrests.
“The civilian population, they’re being hunted by us,” says an officer with more than ten years on the job. “Instead of being protected by us, they’re being hunted and we’re being hated.”
The focus on numbers, and the rewards for those who meet quotas has created an atmosphere, another veteran officer says, in which cops compete to see who can get the highest numbers, and it can lead to the kind of arbitrary stop that quickly became violent in this recording.
“It’s really bad,” says the officer after listening to the audio recording. “It’s not a good thing at all. But it’s really common, I’m sorry to say. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Lieberman from the NYCLU agrees: “It’s time for the Mayor and the Police Commissioner to stop trying to scare New Yorkers into accepting this kind of abuse, and to recognize that there is a problem.”
The day after this video was first released, the New York City Council met to debate the Community Safety Act, a package of bills that would curb some of the abuses associated with stop-and-frisk. Click here to read a full report from that meeting.