When the Police Stop Absolutely Everybody


With the U.S. Justice Department filing suit against Arizona's immigration law last week, the debate over its legality and impact is just beginning. Supporters say the law is necessary to keep Arizona safe, while detractors worry that police will be empowered to harass anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.

Those who are skeptical that the law would actually inconvenience innocent Americans should study the stark example of Brownsville, Brookyln. Since 2006, the residents of this neighborhood of just eight blocks have endured 52,000 police stops, according to The New York Times. Statistically speaking, that's nearly one stop per resident per year:

In some instances, people were stopped because the police said they fit the description of a suspect. But the data show that fewer than 9 percent of stops were made based on "fit description." Far more — nearly 26,000 times — the police listed either "furtive movement," a catch-all category that critics say can mean anything, or "other" as the only reason for the stop. Many of the stops, the data show, were driven by the police's ability to enforce seemingly minor violations of rules governing who can come and go in the city's public housing.

What's this, now? Contrary to what the apologists for Arizona's law are claiming, police already stop people without good reasons for doing so. But at least all these stops must result in some weighty crime-busting, right? Not so, says the Times:

The encounters — most urgently meant to get guns off the streets — yield few arrests. Across the city, 6 percent of stops result in arrests. In these roughly eight square blocks of Brownsville, the arrest rate is less than 1 percent. The 13,200 stops the police made in this neighborhood last year resulted in arrests of 109 people. In the more than 50,000 stops since 2006, the police recovered 25 guns.

Far from making the community safer, these authoritarian tactics may actually undermine their own goal. Brownsville residents cited feeling "violated, degraded and resentful" toward the police because of the over-the-top frequency of the stops. Residents are irritated that the police department often tasks rookie officers with patrolling the area. These cops aren't as skilled as veteran officers at distinguishing between law-abiding citizens and potential threats. The result is a community where law enforcement has made a mockery of itself. As the Times reports:

There is Jonathan Guity, a 26-year-old legal assistant with no criminal record, who, when asked how many times he had been stopped in the neighborhood where he grew up, said, "Honestly, I'd say 30 to 40 times. I'm serious."

Young black men get stopped so often that a few years ago, Gus Cyrus, coach of the football team at nearby Thomas Jefferson High School, started letting his players leave practice with their bright orange helmets so the police would not confuse them with gang members.

New York City isn't the American southwest, but Brownsville provides an important lesson for supporters of the Arizona law: Increased policing will harm the innocent, whether or not it deters any criminals. But more importantly, when interactions with the police become increasingly random, fruitless, and prone to racial bias, the real loser is respect for the rule of law in society.

Read Senior Editor Radley Balko on the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies here.