Calling the stops on the stop-and-frisk debate
by Dawn Lim
Jul 20, 2010 | 467 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Former street cop Eugene O’Donnell, patrolled Crown Heights and East Flatbush in the 1980s, working in neighborhoods that were mostly Caribbean and African-American. For him, stop-and-frisk was “an absolutely necessary tool” to get the job done.

“You have to have it to allow the police to intercept people doing bad stuff,” said O’Donnell, who has also served as an assistant district attorney in Queens and a prosecutor in the Kings County District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn.

“When you stop someone, the message gets out to the other bad guys: the cops are serious and committed to making place safe,” he said.

It’s an opinion that, at first glance, may draw a lot of fire after the polarizing and charged debate surrounding stop and frisk.

After all, this is a charged climate where, in the words of O’Donnell, now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “people dwell on certain details and read them the way they want to understand it.”

Firestorm

As legislation to block the NYPD from electronically saving names, addresses and social security numbers of those it has stopped, questioned, and found to have not done wrong worked its way up the New York Assembly to Governor David Paterson’s desk, stop-and-frisk practices came to the center of a public and media storm this month.

Last year, the NYPD stopped, questioned and frisked people a record 575,000 times. Nearly nine out of 10 of those stops did not lead to an arrest or summons, but more than 80 percent stopped and questioned were black or Latino.

“The disproportionate number of black and Latino New Yorkers subjected to these stops, but found to be innocent of any wrongdoing is appalling,” stated a letter sent out to Paterson from the City Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus on July 7.

Minorities could be “persistently treated as criminals, by being kept in the database, said the letter, adding that stop-and-frisk targets minorities and “as a result, thousands of blacks and Latinos are being put through a revolving door of criminality without justification.”

Councilman Jumaane Williams, who serves Flatbush, Flatlands, and parts of Midwood and Canarsie in Brooklyn, and councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who represents Corona, East Elmhurst and parts of Jackson Heights in Queens, put their signatures to the letter.

When Paterson signed into law legislation to prevent stop and frisk data from being saved on July 16, Williams said that he was “pleased that we are starting a dialogue about injustices like the stop-and-frisk policies of the NYPD.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the advocacy group New York Civil Liberties Union hailed this as a “historic civil rights legislation,” but added more needs to be done to end a “campaign of excessive and racially skewed policing.

Assessing the debate

“You oversimplify when you turn stop-and-frisk into a racial issue,” said O’Donnell.

Because the police department is so racially diverse now, the old idea of white cops policing black neighborhoods doesn’t hold as much water, he added.

“From a law enforcement perspective, I think it’s going to be hard to say that we should destroy records that could solve crime,” he said, adding that if “it becomes public that some rapist went away because he wasn’t put in a database,” people will raise a ruckus.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office had lobbied that keeping an e-repository of profiles would aid law enforcement, but this stand ultimately failed to gain political currency.

“The answer is not to tell people to destroy information they gathered to do lawful stops. The answer is to redefine the stops,” said O’Donnell, adding that the stops are done if they are legal and necessary, and not just to satisfy quotas.

“Ultimately, you have to sanction a system where you do stop-and-frisk, but ensure that the police doesn’t get cavalier about it,” he added.
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