THE ORIGINAL SIN: Stopped and frisked in New York!

MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2013

Part 1—Let’s play good prof, bad prof: In recent years, many, many, many people have been stopped, then frisked, in New York.

The New York Times has frequently complained about this fact in its editorials. Last August, a front-page news report outlined some basic facts of the case.

Joseph Goldstein and Wendy Ruderman did the reporting:
GOLDSTEIN AND RUDERMAN (8/4/12): The number of times police officers stopped, questioned and frisked people on the streets of New York City has dropped significantly, by more than 34 percent, in recent months, and a key contributing factor appears to be that police commanders have grown wary of pushing for such stops at daily roll calls, police supervisors said.


The Police Department conducted 203,500 stops in January, February and March this year, according to the department's chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne—a record number. But in the second quarter—April, May and June—the police stopped 133,934 people, he said. During this period, the issue received considerable attention in the news media. The second-quarter stops were about 25 percent lower compared with the number of street stops in the second quarter of 2011, police officials said.

Generally, about half of the street stops resulted in the police's frisking the person, police officials said.

The previously growing numbers of street stops—only 60,260 were recorded in the third quarter of 2004, for example—have been criticized by civil rights groups, as well as by some City Council members and minority community leaders, who point out that the overwhelming majority of the stops do not result in the discovery of any wrongdoing on the part of the person stopped. Blacks and Hispanics generally represent more than 85 percent of those stops.
Thanks to the significant drop in this activity, only 134,000 people had been stopped in the most recent three-month period! Perhaps as few as 65,000 had been frisked!

In earlier editorials, the Times had placed one figure into perspective. African-Americans and Hispanics were involved in “more than 85 percent of the stops” in 2011, the editors had noted, even though these groups only “make up about half the city's population.”

Let’s return to last August: Five days after the Goldstein/Ruderman report, a Times editorial noted the apparent futility of this widespread police practice. “Despite the police claims that the stops keep criminals and weapons off the streets,” the editors wrote, “only about 6 percent of stops lead to arrests, and last year, only one in every 879 stops turned up a gun.”

“One in every 879 stops?” On a mathematical basis, that amounts to one-ninth of one percent of all stops! As they continued, the editors described the types of frisks which were taking place despite this low rate of return:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (8/9/12): News accounts continue to illustrate how the program has alienated communities of color. This week, for example, Wendy Ruderman reported in The Times about a little-discussed aspect of the program—the humiliating toll that it has taken on women, who say that male police officers have singled them out without cause for invasive searches and harassment.

In one case, a woman said she was sitting on the front steps of her home in the Bronx on a recent summer night when police officers rifled through her handbag, fishing out a tampon, a sanitary napkin and finally birth control pills, about which they questioned her. Another young woman from Harlem Heights said police officers who claimed to be searching for a rapist interrupted her and two female friends, demanded identification and then patted her down. ''It was uncalled-for,'' she said. ''It made no sense. How are you going to stop three females when you are supposedly looking for a male rapist?''

People who have been singled out for unjustified searches have expressed similar sentiments all over the city.
Ruderman’s report about the frisks of women had appeared on August 6; to read that report, just click here. But according to the editors, men and women had been “singled out for unjustified searches...all over the city.” The numbers involved were very large—and arrests and gun seizures were few.

On February 15 of this year, a somewhat similar incident occurred in a New York City deli. This incident didn’t involve the police; it involved an over-zealous, ill-advised and mistaken employee of the deli in question. As far as we know, this employee hasn’t been identified by name in news reporting of the incident. As best as we tell, the reporting hasn’t mentioned this employee’s age or his race/ethnicity. (Comments by the owner suggest to us that the employee is an adult, not a teen.)

That said, the employee in question accused a rather well-known actor of shop-lifting from the deli. He then subjected the actor to a frisk. By everybody’s account, the actor in question had done nothing wrong.

The actor had not engaged in shoplifting. The employee's accusation was wrong.

The actor who was wrongfully accused is Forest Whitaker. And you’re right! Getting frisked by a deli employee is not the same thing as getting frisked by police—except to the extent that it is.

We hadn’t heard about this event until we read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ guest column in last Thursday’s New York Times. Especially at a time when it’s pointless to talk about anything else—especially at a time when every other published discusssion tends to be an imitation of life—we thought Coates’ column, and the reaction it engendered, was the most interesting phenomenon we encountered last week.

We don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment. We thought Coates’ reasoning was often quite hard to follow—in part, perhaps, because he tried to include a lot of topics and concerns in an 800-word column. Beyond that, we thought the reactions of his many commenters help us see how we the people often think and talk about race, the most powerful and destructive force in our nation’s benighted history.

We thought the comments to Coates’ column were fascinating, instructive. So too with the comments to his subsequent blog post at the Atlantic. And sure enough!

This morning, right on time, the Times has published two letters about the Coates column. And sure enough! Each of the letters is from a professor, in classic New York Times fashion.

For our money, the professorial pair tend to play “good prof, bad prof.” Though for today, you’ll have to judge that matter yourselves.

When it comes to the nation’s economy, to the powerful goes the discourse—or so we’ll suggest in our very next post. But for obvious reasons, regular people respond with great feeling when we talk about race.

Since Whitaker is a well-known black actor, the fact that he was wrongfully accused has been discussed in terms of race. All week long, we’ll use Coates’ column and its comments as a way to think about the way race gets discussed in our country, whose history is so brutal in this area that the language for discussing it hasn’t yet been invented.

For ourselves, we had a lot of problems following Coates’ points. For us, those other hundreds of thousands of frisks lingered in the background as we read his reactions, and those of his readers, to this latest wrongful frisk.

You’re right! Getting frisked by a (mistaken) deli employee isn’t the same as getting frisked by a policeman—except to the extent that it just massively is.

Tomorrow: Does anybody actually know why this latest frisk happened?


  1. I am happy to see you begin to push back on this a bit. When I read Mr. Coates' column, I too had some confusion, but in all the comments and follow-ups no one seemed to think there was anything unusual about the column. I consider myself to be progressive-almost as far left as one can be in this country, and have always thought that I wasn't racist at all though I acknowledge that can be a very self serving description. However this is the question I had when reading Mr. Coates' column. I acknowledge that Mr. Whitaker was not shoplifting, but why have I been unable to find out why the employee mistakenly thought he was shoplifting? While everyone seems to assume that is is because of his race, even Mr. Coates acknowledges that he and his family (including his niece who was not a regular customer) loved the deli and had obviously never experienced any discrimination there. I just can't understand why we think this employee only frisked Mr. Whitaker because he is black. Also in terms of the Sean Penn analogy, I can only offer Winona Ryder. She is proof that an actor, white or black may be a shoplifter. I just wish Mr. Coates had explained why he believed the employee had no reason to question Mr. Whitaker other than his race.