It's not a crime to be who you are

It's not a crime to be who you are

Early Thursday morning, well past midnight, the New York City Council passed landmark legislation – known as the Community Safety Act – to establish long-needed independent oversight of the NYPD (an Inspector General) and to strengthen the City’s prohibition on bias-based profiling by the police. You can read more of the details in New York Times and Associated Press articles.

I’m proud to be one of the primary co-sponsors of these bills, working closely with Councilmember Jumaane Williams and extraordinary New Yorkers in the Communities United for Police Reform coalition.

Some of you have asked me why I got involved in this issue. Stop-and-frisk is not a big issue for most families in brownstone Brooklyn. Our churches and synagogues aren’t targeted for surveillance. Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have made it seem like passing these bills will turn our streets over to gangs and terrorists.

Obviously, I would never vote for something that I believe would compromise the safety of families in our community. We all have parents and grandparents, kids and grandkids, friends and loved ones, and we work and pray so hard to keep them safe. I deeply value the strong working relationships I’ve been able to build with the commanding officers, community affairs officers, detectives, patrol officers, and beat cops in our communities, people who risk their lives and safety for the rest of us on a regular basis.

But we cannot keep New York City safe by profiling our neighbors based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, or immigration status. It violates the civil rights that are at the core of our democracy. It sets neighbors against each other in this city where diversity is at our core. It frays the bonds of trust needed for good policing. And it just doesn’t work.

Let’s be clear: bias-based profiling is happening in New York City. It is often un-intentional, or rooted in policy more than prejudice … but it has powerful consequences nonetheless. In Park Slope, where only about 25% of residents are people-of-color, they represent nearly 85% of the stops. And 90% of the people stopped are entirely innocent. African-Americans and Latinos in Brooklyn and Manhattan are nine times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession that whites, even though usage is roughly comparable. NYPD documents released by the Associated Press raise strong concerns that Muslim mosques and student groups have been targeted for surveillance with no specific leads or suspicions.

And it matters. If you have never been stopped and frisked, it’s easy to think it's “no big deal,” a minor inconvenience that gives us safer streets.

But in the early hours of Thursday morning, on the floor of the City Council, my colleagues – African-American, Latino, Asian, and LGBTQ – gave powerful testimony from their own experiences, and those of their constituents, about the very real consequences. Kids who grow up fearing police officers, who feel profoundly disrespected, who wind up with records for doing nothing wrong that come back to haunt them.

Jumaane Williams implored us: “if you have never been a young, black or Latino male or female in the city of New York, if you have never been LGBTQ, if you have never been Muslim, please listen to us.” Donovan Richards spoke about being stopped himself as a young man walking his grandmother home, and the fear it instilled. Danny Dromm talked about his wrongful arrest years ago for being gay, how that has happened to so many other members of his community, and why he has waited for this day for so long. The testimony was both moving and thoughtful, and made me proud to be a member of the City Council.

Profiling would be wrong even if it worked, but there’s just no evidence that it does. In 2002, with 97,296 stops (which are meant to get guns off the streets), there were 1,892 shooting victims. In 2011, with a whopping 685,724 stops, there were 1,821. Less than one percent of stops find a gun – long odds for even the most irresponsible gambler. And even if one were OK with racial profiling, the NYPD is profiling the wrong people. When stopped and frisked, whites are more likely to be carrying a gun that African-Americans or Latinos. And the years of surveillance of New York’s Muslim community have, according to the department’s Assistant Chief, never generated a single lead.

The bills we passed Thursday morning were carefully drafted – through a year of debate, feedback, and amendments. The inspector general bill is just plain good-government. They simply conduct audits and reviews, and make recommendations to improve policies. We’ve got IGs in almost every City, State, and Federal agency, even the CIA and the FBI. Just this morning, the Washington Post joined a bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators urging President Obama to appoint more: “Inspectors General are an essential component of government oversight” the Senators noted. They “occupy a unique role … of speaking truth to power.”

The bill to prohibit bias-based profiling is careful as well. Plaintiffs can’t seek monetary or punitive damages, so there is little incentive for frivolous lawsuits. The standard for lawsuits is high, and based on decades of civil and human rights law. It’s hard to get in the door, since “the mere existence of a statistical imbalance … is not alone sufficient” to establish a claim of disparate impact.” And it’s even harder to win, since the NYPD can simply show that its policies are necessary to achieve the law-enforcement objectives, and the burden shifts back to the plaintiffs to show that they could be achieved just as well with less discrimination.

Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly are now resorting to fear-mongering and hyperbole. I don’t throw those terms around lightly, but I really believe it’s a mistake that risks dividing New Yorkers on issues of race and safety. The Commissioner knows that these bills present no risk to the placement of security cameras, or Operation Crew Cut, or the daily work of our police officers. If police resources are targeted at operations like these and allow officers the time to build relationships in the neighborhood they serve, our city will be a whole lot safer. You can read more debunking of opponents’ hyperbolic claims here and here.

The Mayor urged us to look in the mirror, suggesting that we must be able to live with ourselves as we pass legislation that relates to public safety. I have. And when I do, I see a city that does not fear difference.

It’s easy to fear people who are different. If you’re white, it can make you anxious to stand on the corner of an all-black neighborhood. If you’re straight, it can be uncomfortable to sit in a gay bar. If you’re Christian or Jewish, a mosque can look like an alien place. And it can sometimes be just a short leap from there to think that maybe a little extra policing is warranted.

But – as stated so eloquently by young people from the Morris Justice Project this week – “it’s not a crime to be who you are.” I know we don’t want our kids growing up in city where some kids are told that it is.