How ‘Stop and Frisk’ Is Too Often a Sexual Assault by Cops on Teenagers in Targeted NYC Neighborhoods

Teenagers are harassed and violated in ways you can’t imagine.

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January 21, 2013  |  

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Imagine you’re 17 years old. A man with a gun and a badge has stopped you on the street and jammed his hand inside your pants, touching your penis. The girl you have a crush on is watching from nearby. That’s the reality for many young men of color in New York City.

Stop-and-frisk is the controversial policing tactic in which street cops looking for weapons stop and pat down young men. Discussions of this policy in the media most often consist of alarming stats, like what percent of men targeted are black and brown ( 87% in New York) or the breach of constitutional rights the searches entail. But the reality on the ground is far less abstract. The policy amounts to a constant disruption of the lives of hundreds of thousands of young black and brown men. It’s a belittling experience that could better described as sexual assault.

I’ve reported on stop and frisk for two years, and in that time I’ve talked to young men who have experienced stop-and-frisk, and the stories they tell are harrowing. A black teenager in Bedford-Stuyvesant described how embarrassed he was to have “old ladies” watch as his pants landed around his ankles while police searched him. A 17-year-old in the Bronx explained that police, “They go in my pants. You’re not supposed to go in my pants.” Being touched by a female police officer can be especially upsetting for adolescent males. “It’s annoying because it doesn’t matter what kind of cop it is, female or male, they’re gonna frisk you. If you say something to the female about it, the female says something to you like ‘What? I can do what I want.’ And they still frisk you. You can’t say sexual harassment, nothing,” 18-year-old South Bronx resident Garnell told me last year, adding, “And they go hard, grabbing stuff they’re not supposed to.”  

A New York attorney told me last year he has video of a cop saying he just “credit card-swiped” a man’s ass — without gloves, naturally. What kind of gun can fit between two butt cheeks? And why are cops touching penises, anyway? The answer is simple: They’re not looking for guns, but hoping to make arrests. While stop-and-frisk is only legally allowed for the purpose of uncovering weapons, it has been linked to far more low-level summonses and pot busts than guns. As 18-year-old Lower East resident “Twin” recently told me, “They run their hands down your ass crack because they think you’re hiding drugs there.” In the public housing on Baruch Street, he says police hang out until they see someone “suspicious” enough to grope.

Reporters also tend to cling to the idea that, while suspicion of unlawful activity is a legal prerequisite to a street stop, the vast majority of stops — nearly 90% — do not result in arrest. The 10% that do, however, deserve mention. Manhattan federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently ordered an immediate cease to police stops outside of Bronx private housing (before temporarily lifting the ban while she determines a remedy), citing the commonality of suspicionless stops. As the Bronx district attorney’s office noted this fall when it announced refusal to prosecute trespassing charges, unlawful stop-and-frisks were leading to bogus arrests. Imagine your son going to his friend’s house and missing curfew because, unable to prove he lived at the building he was exiting, he had been arrested for trespass. Or, imagine being the mother of a 12-year-old who went out to shoot hoops in Brownsville, Brooklyn — one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods — and was missing for hours, only to find out he had been taken down to the precinct to determine his identification following a street stop.

Never mind that they’re not old enough to drive, brown and black kids in New York carry IDs for different reasons. For older-looking teens in high stop-and-frisk neighborhoods, their first arrests came when they failed to produce valid ID during a street stop. As one community affairs officer in Brownsville told me after I inquired about the arrest of a 12-year-old without ID: “Well, does he look older?” He looked about 14 — old enough for the NYPD to declare his underwear suspicious enough to be searched. Stop-and-frisk happens to young males in some neighborhoods so often– almost daily, in fact — that it becomes a part of their everyday life.

With cops regularly shoving their hands down the pants of teenagers in particular neighborhoods, it should come as no surprise that they sometimes pull out a bag of weed. In these situations, an illegal search can quickly become a bogus marijuana charge. Queens College sociologist Harry Levine’s work demonstrates that this is precisely why 50,000 New Yorkers (mostly in the same neighborhoods where stop-and-frisk is prevalent) are arrested annually for pot in public. Once the cops remove weed from a kid’s pocket, they can deem it “in public view,” a more serious offense than marijuana that is concealed. Controversy over these nonsensical arrests led NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly to send an internal memo to the NYPD, advising police that weed they bring into public view cannot be prosecuted as if the kid was smoking or waving his weed around for the cops to see. It is also why Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana in public view. In a city full of white, bong-smoking college students, almost 90% of those arrested for pot are black or Latino.   

But it’s not just marijuana arrests that are linked to stop-and-frisk. The racial profiling tool provides the initial contact that can lead to a citation necessary to fill a quota. The NYPD follows the “Broken Windows” strategy of policing, in which a zero-tolerance policy for low-level crimes is expected to drive down more serious crimes like shootings. Thus, in the same neighborhoods where police deploy stop-and-frisk, a teen can’t ride a bike on the sidewalk without getting a ticket.