Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
Listen to the audio a 17-year-old secretly recorded of police disparaging his mixed-race appearance and threatening to break his arm.
Before you listen to armed public employees detain and abuse a 17-year-old Harlem boy, calling him a "fucking mutt" and threatening to break his arm, here are some necessary bits of context.
Innocent people are daily stopped by police on the streets of New York, shoved up against a car or a wall, and told that if they verbally complain they'll be physically assaulted on the spot. It's official NYPD policy to temporarily detain and frisk pedestrians who aren't committing any crime. The threats and other abusive behavior aren't officially sanctioned but happen all the time.
The stops themselves happen more than 1,800 times per day.
Innocent citizens, who make up 88 percent of those stopped, are often insulted, berated and humiliated. Despite knowing all this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly insist that "Stop and Frisk" ought to continue. They can do so relatively secure in the knowledge that the people they know and love will never be subject to the policy, for wealthy people are stopped very rarely, and people with black or brown skin make up almost 90 percent of the stops. As a hoodie-and-jeans wearing grad student, I spent countless hours walking in Flatbush, Park Slope, Morningside Heights, and the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, often doing so late at night. NYPD officers never so much as indicated that they noticed me. Had I done the same thing while black or Latino I'd almost certainly have been stopped and frisked.
Were Martin Luther King Jr. still alive he would be marching against that reality.
I've read a lot about these encounters. In the paragraphs above, I try to describe them bluntly and without euphemism. But if you're like me, words cannot convey the reality of what goes on nearly as well as listening to the audio a 17-year-old kid recorded when he was stopped in Harlem.
The Nation obtained the audio and put it on the web. After contacting a staffer from a local civil liberties group and a police officers who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, the magazine reports that the encounter is not unusual, and echoes descriptions from others who didn't capture their stops on audio. I highly recommend listening to it yourself to get the full effect:
Eye-opening, isn't it?
Do you think that sort of thing would be tolerated if Caucasian, white-collar New Yorkers were routinely stopped and treated that way near 731 Lexington Avenue, where Bloomberg Tower is located? How would Mayor Bloomberg react if his daughter was stopped by an NYPD officer, asked why, and was told that if she didn't "shut the fuck up" she'd be punched and have her arm broken?
Now think about the place Stop and Frisk has had in our politics.
On the civil-libertarian left and the libertarian right, it is reviled, along with the drone policy abroad that operates on the same logic: Violating the God-given rights of many innocents is okay if in doing so you can get a few bad guys and assert that you're ultimately making everyone safer. But mainstream Democrats and Republicans aren't troubled at all by the fact that the biggest city in America is daily violating the liberty of residents numbering in the thousands.
The centrist, no-labels types are happy to ally themselves with Mayor Bloomberg, despite this policy. For them, there isn't anything radical or extremist about Stop and Frisk. Conservatives go on and on about government threatening liberty if gun regulation or higher marginal tax rates or the threat of right-wing terrorism is mentioned, but are somehow silent and apparently unperturbed by government employees abusively searching Americans for walking down the street.
There is a long overdue attempt in the City Council to end Stop and Frisk, as the New York Daily News reports:
A City Council hearing Wednesday on the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy degenerated into a racially charged shouting match with a black councilmember telling her white colleague, "I'm not one of your boys." The tempers flared after City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan) argued that the policy of stopping hundreds of thousands of mostly black residents is a form of profiling. Jackson specifically cited an audiotape, recently posted on the website of The Nation magazine, that captured cops calling a stopped Harlem teen, "a f---king mutt."
The 17-year-old made a difference.
The story goes on:
Before the fireworks, the committee was mulling four bills that would reform stop-and-frisk policies. One would require cops to actively inform people of a widely unknown right not to consent to a search when stopped. Another would create an Inspector General for the NYPD.
The tape published by The Nation isn't the first time that secretly captured audio has revealed the NYPD to be behaving badly in this area. As the Village Voice reported back in the spring of 2010:
Over a 17-month period ending in October 2009, police officer Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded conversations at Bedford-Stuyvesant's 81st Precinct, including 117 roll calls, during which superior officers like precinct commander Steven Mauriello can be heard instructing cops to arrest people for things like "blocking the sidewalk." Supervisors told officers to make an arrest and "articulate" a charge later, or haul someone in with the intent of voiding the arrest at the end of a shift, or detain people for hours on minor charges like disorderly conduct--all for the purpose of getting citizens off the street. People were arrested for not showing identification, even if they were just a few feet from their homes. Mental health worker Rhonda Scott suffered two broken wrists during a 2008 arrest for not having her ID card while standing on her own stoop.
The precinct's campaign led to a 900 percent increase in stop-and-frisks in the neighborhood, which commanders demanded from officers in order to hit statistical quotas. It also resulted in several dozen gun arrests, hundreds of arrests on other charges, and thousands of summonses for things like disorderly conduct, trespassing, and loitering. Defense attorneys and civil rights groups say Mauriello's instructions to his troops appear to have strained the limits of probable cause, and raise questions about the legality of the many arrests. The tactics, which are used in many other parts of the city, also caused an undercurrent of resentment among residents.
That's how the politics of this issue will change.
What's required is more secret recording. It's very difficult to defend Stop and Frisk when the reality of how it's administered is made public in a way the average person can understand. Technology is permitting the government to spy on us in unprecedented ways, but it can empower citizens too.
Any 17-year-old can record a Stop and Frisk encounter.
Any non-profit can teach people in affected areas how to inconspicuously record anytime they see one of these encounters.
Big Brother is being watched.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.