By David Cruz
Stop-and-frisk, or as police call it “field interrogation,” is the most controversial aspect of policing in urban centers like Newark. Ask most police brass about it and they’ll point out that stop-and-frisk is not a policy, per se, but a tool. They say they don’t target young black men, specifically. Rather, they say, stop-and-frisks are most frequently the result of a report of a person “fitting a description.”
In Newark, it happens about 1,700 times a month. That’s down slightly from the 2,000 a month last year. But new figures for the first five months of this year confirm what critics like the ACLU have said about the practice all along, that the NPD disproportionately targets minorities.
Police department numbers confirm that 70 percent of the stops involved black males, in a 52 percent black city. Since last July, in the fourth precinct, which includes the West and some of the Central Ward just over 2,600 field interrogations were conducted. Ninety-three percent of those stopped were black.
In the fifth precinct, which includes the South and some of the Central Ward, of the roughly 4,200 stops, 82 percent were of black males.
Police officials are reluctant to discuss these numbers and point out that 22 percent of the encounters lead to arrests. The Superior Officers Union issued a statement saying in part: “The U.S. and N.J. constitutions do not forbid all government searches and seizures, only unreasonable ones. Contrary to what the ACLU might say, mere ‘field inquires’ or ‘investigative detentions’ are effective crime-fighting tools used by the Newark Police Department, and other police departments around the country.”
Not surprisingly, many residents look not at the 22 percent of arrests that result from the searches but rather at the 78 percent that lead to nothing, except maybe a negative police encounter.
“You feel like you’re being followed, harassed,” said one.
Another pointed to the relative ineffectiveness of the practice. “Nine times out of 10 you’re stopping and frisking somebody and there’s nothing to search them for,” she said. “They don’t have any concealed weapons; they don’t have any drugs; they’re just walking down the street. It’s rude; it’s an invasion of privacy and it’s an invasion of personal space.”
“You’re passing judgment on every black that walks by,” said another woman, “like he’s a young black man, he must be up to something and that’s not even the case at all. He could be on his way to work as far as anybody knows, but just because he’s black, he’s getting targeted.”
This seeming disconnect between a police force charged with fighting crime in a troubled city on the one hand, and a citizenry, on the other hand, distrustful of the police creates a tension that has grown worse over the years. Meanwhile, a federal monitor could be brought in very soon to oversee and help overhaul the state’s largest police department.
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