Column: The Risks of Stop-and-Frisk (New York Metro)

May 22, 2008 —  By Donna Lieberman — In the last two years, nearly a million New Yorkers were stopped, interrogated or frisked by the NYPD.

Some were on their way home from school.

Some were walking to the subway.

Some were three-star NYPD chiefs sitting in their cars.

What they have in common is that nearly all of them – 900,000 – were completely innocent.

The Police Department and its advocates hail New York City’s aggressive stop-and-frisk policy as both effective and appropriate -- dismissing any possible harms as purely theoretical. But for Leonardo Blair, a Jamaican-born New York journalist, the consequences are anything but theoretical. Last fall, Blair was steps away from his aunt's home in the Bronx when two NYPD officers accosted, searched, interrogated and detained him.

"I felt humiliated, degraded and disrespected."

Some version of Blair's story is repeated hundreds of thousands of times a year by New Yorkers who have literally done nothing wrong. Last year, nine out of every 10 people stopped-and-frisked were released without charges or even a citation.

By focusing on an alleged and tenuous link between the stop-and-frisk policy and a decrease in violent crime, supporters of the policy miss its true legacy: the creation of a climate of distrust and disrespect between community members and the police force.

Sadly, there is an unmistakable and pervasive racial bias in the policy as well. More than 80 percent of New Yorkers subject to the NYPD's street interrogations are black or Latino. At a time when the NYPD says it is trying to forge stronger links to communities of color, the increasingly aggressive stop-and-frisk policy is dramatically undercutting those efforts.

But even if the NYPD was willing to address this clear racial imbalance, the stop-and-frisk policy would still be misguided. The constitution protects our right to be free from intrusive stops, interrogations and searches unless there’s a warrant or grounds for suspicion. In fact, a major impetus in the fight for American independence was the belief that all people deserve to be free from oppressive and unfair searches by agents of the king. Simply put, the NYPD cannot break the law to enforce the law.

While these cherished values should prompt the philosophical foundation for ending stop-and-frisk, the policy's real victims remain Leonardo Blair and the hundreds of thousands more like him.

"I really thought that minority communities were overreacting, I thought they were making much ado about nothing," Blair said. "But this is a nightmare that I can't wake up from."

One wonders whether the NYPD will acknowledge this nightmare and do something to end it now that New York’s finest have put one of their own – Chief Ziegler, the highest ranking black in the department — through it as well.

Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.