The Associated Press has reported on widespread undercover surveillance by the New York Police Department of Muslim students and groups, including businesses–of persons who were engaged in lawful activities and not suspected of having engaged in any criminal activities. It appears from these reports–for which AP reporters won Pulitzer Prizes–that such persons and groups were followed and spied on singularly because of their religious identities–because they are “Muslims.” And reportedly because they are Muslims NYPD targeted student groups for surveillance, and created dossiers, reportedly, on Muslims in various walks of life–and not just in New York City but–as protested by Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker and NJ Governor Chris Christie–in New Jersey, and also on campuses in New York and outside of New York–including at such ivy league colleges as Yale.
The New York Civil Rights Coalition believes that everyone is entitled to equality before the law and that everyone is entitled to their individuality; this means that no person should either be stereotyped or scapegoated because of their racial, ethnic or religious identity. This belief is bedrock to America’s values of individual liberty and pluralism, which is fundamental to e pluribus unum–loosely translated, meaning: from the many, one nation. We learned this as school children in our pledge: I pledge allegiance to the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible and with justice for all.” Group blame (yes, crime is disproportionately high in black and brown communities–but that statistic doesn’t make every young black or Hispanic male a criminal suspect) is also what is at play when police officers use “race” or the skin color of young men as a proxy or substitute for questioning them or–as the street jargon goes–issuing to them “move on” orders when their standing or conversing on street corners. This is a social problem as old as the 1960s. Back then, the “Kerner Commission” investigated the causes of friction between police (whom minorities in particular depend on for the equal protection of the law–and, in turn, the police depend on persons in these communities for help in stamping out crime) and minority communities. which even back then had a high incidence of stops and move-on orders directed at primarily black youths. The Kerner Commission discerned “in nearly every city [it] surveyed,…complaints of harassment…of social street gatherings, and the stopping of [blacks] on foot or in cars without obvious basis. These [practices] have great impact in the ghetto…Some [police] conduct–breaking up of street groups, indiscriminate stops and searches–is frequently directed a youths, creating special tensions” in areas where youths “spend much time on the street…” Police conduct is also guided by laws, and Supreme Court precedents which guide police behavior–when, in what circumstances, they may and should stop and search persons. Such lawful stop and frisks are generally speaking related to actual crimes the police officer suspects has been committed with a reasonable inference that the person stopped was involved in that particular crime or is about to commit a crime. The frisk takes place when the police officer who stops a person has a reasonable basis to fear for his safety and that the person stopped has a weapon. Ira Glasser, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in response to an editorial of the New York Daily News that had endorsed aggressive, unlawful police stops and frisk, posted a comment on stop and frisk practices of which we approve. Here in its entirety is what Glasser posted:
The noted author Mary McCarthy once contemptuously described another writer by saying “Not one word she writes is true, including “and” and “the.” Reading the Daily News editorial on Attorney-General Schneiderman’s inquiry into the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program reminded me of that comment; rarely have I seen an editorial so factually barren. The editorial starts out by referring to the Police Department’s program as “stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking people who seem criminally inclined.” That’s the first mischaracterization: How do the police know that the people they stop are “criminally inclined?” They don’t; they stop them because they are young and black, because being young and black has become, in Ray Kelly’s world, a substitute for evidence of criminality. How do I know that? Because according to the NYPD’s own records, only about 6% of those stopped result in arrest. Nor are many of those arrested for serious crimes; over 50,000 are arrested for having small amounts of marijuana in their pockets, which isn’t even a crime in New York. Nor are the police stopping and arresting people with criminal histories; large percentages of those arrested for possession of marijuana, for example, had no prior arrest record for anything; nearly 12,000 of those arrests were of 16-19 year olds, 94% of whom had no prior convictions for anything, and nearly half had never been arrested before for anything. Whatever else is causing the police to target these people, it isn’t because there is any good reason to think they are “criminally inclined.”
The editorial next asks if Schneiderman has reasonable suspicion that the NYPD is violating New Yorkers’ rights, and concludes, without saying why, that he does not. But consider this: the law is clear that the police may not frisk someone they have stopped unless they have good reason to suspect that they are in danger from a concealed weapon, primarily a gun. It can’t be a mere hunch; the suspicion has to be based on something like a tell-tale bulge, in which case a frisk, or pat-down, is allowed. Over the past number of years, police records show they conduct several hundred thousand such frisks each year, and found guns in fewer than one per cent of cases. For example, in 2009, about 300,000 frisks were conducted, and only 762 guns found– one-quarter of one per cent! Either the police are incompetent at judging whether someone may be carrying, or they are just indiscriminately frisking hundreds of thousands of people illegally. That’s reason enough for Schneiderman to investigate. When 90% of those frisked are not white, that’s even more reason. The News’ conclusion that Schneiderman doesn’t have good reason to at least investigate is plainly wrong, and unsupported by any evidence.
The News editorial also says that the stops have helped drive down crime in poorer neighborhoods. Again, the News cites no evidence to support this claim; it merely is parroting what Ray Kelly always says in defense of this indefensible practice. How does stopping and searching people who have not been arrested or convicted before reduce crime? How does frisking people for guns, and then not finding any in more than one-quarter of one per cent of those frisked reduce criminal violence? How does failure– 94% of those stopped are not arrested and over 99% of those frisked for guns don’t have any– get described as success? Kelly’s police are stopping and searching the wrong people while the criminals are somewhere else. They are going after the wrong people–and violating their rights and searching them illegally (while finding mostly nothing)– because they are not targeting people based on evidence of criminal activity, but because they are black and young and Kelly has a cockamamie theory that harassing such people reduces crime. He asserts that over and over again, but assertions are not proof. And when the News supports such delusional thinking, it is the News, not the Attorney-General, that is being political.
The stop and frisk policy is like the drunk who was looking for his keys under a street light when he had actually lost them many blocks away. When asked why, he said it was because the light was better there. But the keys weren’t anywhere near there, and the crime cops are supposed to be protecting us from won’t be found by harassing hundreds of thousands of young people of color. When the cops do that, they neglect real crime, and make communities less safe, while acting in an illegal and discriminatory way. That is indefensible, and Mr. Schneiderman is right to look into it. — Ira Glasser, New York, New York
The same may be said about police conduct when law enforcement agencies bend the rules or ignore the law–and without a criminal predicate–start undercover surveillance and dossier building on Muslims qua Muslims. Group stereotyping and group blame for the fiendish crimes of a few who identify with or call themselves a part of a racial, ethnic or religious group–are to be opposed by those who adhere to the rule of law and who are lovers of individual liberty.
That is why we wrote to New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, urging that his office undertake an independent probe of NYPD reported surveillance of Muslims. Other civil rights groups did likewise; and Attorney General Schneiderman responded that he thinks his office lacks “jurisdiction” to conduct any such a probe of NYPD. So, we then wrote, along with Norman Siegel and his partners at Siegel, Teitelbaum & Evans LLP to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo urging the governor to make an independent probe happen.
Interestingly, and curiously, New York’s Attorney General recently publicly stated his plans to study NYPD’s stop and frisk practices–he is concerned about allegations of racial profiling (affecting mainly black and Hispanic young males). We say “curiously” because he did not state any concerns–in announcing his plan to conduct such a study–for racial impact of NYPD’s stop and frisk actions (his predecessor did the same) even as he publicly doubted his office’s “jurisdiction” over conducting an independent probe of NYPD surveillance of a religious minority, i.e. Muslims, including Muslim youths.
You may want to write to Attorney General Schneiderman, and to Governor Cuomo, to inquire about what they are doing to ensure that NYPD is not racially or religiously profiling (without a criminal conduct nexus). Here are their addresses:
The Honorable Eric T. Schneiderman
Office of the Attorney General
Albany, New York 12224-0341
The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor of New York State
New York State Capitol Building
Albany, New York 12224