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Stopping and frisking, but not finding

In front of an officer, a protester voices her displeasure with the New York Police Department during a June silent march down New York's Fifth Avenue.
In front of an officer, a protester voices her displeasure with the New York Police Department during a June silent march down New York's Fifth Avenue.Jamil Smith/MSNBC

Perhaps it is a testament to my good fortune as a black man who hasn't been subjected to all that much overt racism (offline, at least). Perhaps being singled out for ridicule or degradation for one's color is so memorable that it leaves scars no matter how many or few times one is subjected to it. Whichever the case may be, I was reminded of one of those instances today when I read Harvard Divinity student Kenny Wiley's account today in the Boston Globe:

Last Sunday night, I was running down a street near Harvard Yard, trying to get to Harvard Square Station in time to catch a bus. I was wearing, backwards, my Houston Texans hat, a “Cosby Show” T-shirt, and khaki shorts. I had my Mizzou “Summer Welcome 2010” bag over my shoulder. I wasn’t sprinting, but I was moving pretty quickly (for me, anyway). I passed a group of four strangers who looked somewhere between 17 and 21.

As I ran by, one of the guys, a white guy, yelled out, “Bro, you running from the cops or something?” One woman added, “What’d you steal this time?”

A similar thing happened to me nearly 20 years ago on the University of Pennsylvania's Locust Walk, when riding my bike slowly, wearing a backpack and a University of Pennsylvania hoodie. A fellow student walking past me offered me a couple dollars, as if I was homeless. (I gave him a stare, said nothing, and he went off laughing.)

Now if what happened to me and Wiley hurt as much as it did, it is only right to recognize the privilege we both have, even still, I bet someone like Nicholas Peart wishes he'd had our experience instead. Rather than simply being harassed by a jerk on our Ivy League campus, treating us like we're somehow less than a regular citizen -- it could've been someone with actual power targeting us in our own neighborhood, for what seems to be nothing more than our suspicious melanin.

About a month ago, Melissa examined the NYPD's problematic stop-and-frisk policy, and talked to some young men of color whose lives it affects directly. I also covered the silent march led by the likes of NAACP president/CEO Ben Jealous and our own Rev. Al Sharpton. In that respect, I'd be remiss if I didn't call attention to one of the best pieces of journalism I came across all day: Ailsa Chang's report for WNYC Radio

Chang peered behind the rhetoric of city leadership supporting the policy, and using WNYC's own mapping, found that while 770 guns were recovered from more than 685,000 stop-and-frisk stops in 2011 -- 87% of which involved black or Hispanic men, women, boys, and girls -- most of those guns were found outside of where most stop-and-frisk resources were allocated.

In other words, they're finding just over one gun per 1,000 stops, and mostly not in the places they're searching, or amongst the people they're stopping. It's one thing to suspect for no reason; another to suspect for no reason, and produce no results. It doubles the inanity.

I don't mean to demean the police's effort to find guns -- according to the New York Times, almost 70% of New York City's 209 homicides last year were committed by firearms. And as Chang notes, the the NYPD has some strange logic to justify Chang's finding. But let's say Occam's razor applies here, and they're using an alienating policy that isn't proving terribly effective in the areas they're enforcing it. Is it really worth it to keep stopping and frisking?

A brief audio report embedded in this post (mp3 here), along with the interactive map below showing just where those guns were found. You'd do well do follow Chang's lead, and search for yourself.