(NEW YORK) — Talk to a teenager of color living in Harlem or the Bronx and chances are they will have a story to tell about life under “stop and frisk.”
Known as a “250” within the New York Police Department, the right to stop, question and pat down anyone deemed reasonably suspicious is a Supreme Court-approved tactic available to law enforcement across the country.
But few departments in the world stop more people than the NYPD — over 1.2 million in the last two years. And while black and Hispanic residents make up only 23 percent and 29 percent of the city’s population respectively, 84 percent of recorded stops are young men of color and only around six percent of stops lead to an arrest, according to data the Center for Constitutional Rights obtained from the city.
The statistics have led to allegations of racial profiling in a class-action lawsuit and, more informally, in stories shared on the streets of the inner city.
“In that moment you are so scared,” said 17-year-old Kasim Walters in describing one of the seven times he said he has been stopped by NYPD officers in his neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn. “The first thing [I think] is, ‘Am I going to get out of this alive?'”
But while acknowledging the “inconvenience” that comes with frisking hundreds of thousands of innocent people each year, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly credits the tactic with helping bring New York’s crime rate to record lows.
In a rare interview on the topic, Kelly told Nightline that the racial breakdown of the statistics is misleading.
“It makes no sense to use census data, because half the people you stop would be women,” Kelly said. “About 70 percent to 75 percent of the people described as committing violent crimes — assault, robbery, shootings, grand larceny — are described as being African-American.”
“The percentage of people who are stopped is 53 percent African-American,” he continued. “So really, African-Americans are being under stopped in relation to the percentage of people being described as being the perpetrators of violent crime. The stark reality is that a crime happens in communities of color.”
Lawmakers and activists hoping to decrease the number of inner-city 250’s point out that of the hundreds of thousands of stops each year, 1.2 percent turn up a weapon. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sees this as proof that stop-and-frisk works.
“Critics say the fact that we’re ‘only’ finding 800 guns a year through stops of people who fit a description or are engaged in suspicious activity means that we should end stop and frisk,” Bloomberg said in a fiery speech to NYPD leadership on Tuesday. “Wrong. That’s the reason we need it — to deter people from carrying guns. We are the first preventers.”
But in Flatbush, Kasim Walters says this kind of aggressive “proactive policing” only drives a deeper wedge between residents and police. The shooting of teenager Kimani Gray there during a stop and frisk in March led to four days of angry protests and riots, even though officers insist Gray grabbed for a loaded .38 revolver later recovered from the scene.
Walters doesn’t believe them.
“When things like this happen, there’s no trust,” he said. “The police are never going to get the benefit of the doubt. They’re never going to get respect and it’s because of (stop and frisk).”
“We are trying to save his life,” Kelly said, when told of Walters’ suspicion. “And we are trying to save the life of other young people who are disproportionately victimized on the streets of this city and other cities throughout America.”
“We empathize with young people who may have been stopped and weren’t doing anything illegal,” he continued. “We ask them to understand that we are engaged in what we believe to be a life-saving process. And we hope they understand that.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio