In East Village, Minorities Stopped and Questioned in Greater Numbers

Obie JohnsonJared Malsin Obie Johnson, 66, a Marine veteran, said he was
stopped and searched by the police.

In the East Village last year, blacks and Hispanics were stopped and questioned by the police more often than whites, according to newly released stop-and-frisk statistics and a street poll conducted by The Local. The neighborhood’s new Commanding Officer touts the effectiveness of the controversial policy, but some residents complain that it has been used to unfairly target minorities.

According to data obtained from the Police Department by the New York Civil Liberties Union and released yesterday, police officers stopped and questioned people in the Ninth Precinct (which covers the East Village) 3,614 times in 2011. Of those stopped, 1,113 were black, and 1,200 were listed as either “black Hispanic” or “white Hispanic.” Altogether, 63 percent of those stopped were either black or Hispanic –  even though, according to 2010 census data, those groups made up just 33.1 percent of the neighborhood’s population. Just 28 percent of those stopped (about 1,033 people) were white, though 63 percent of East Village residents belonged to that race.

Those numbers are in keeping with an informal poll in which The Local surveyed 107 people, roughly half of them on Second Avenue, and half on Avenue C. Of 55 people approached at Second Avenue and Fourth Street, only three (six percent) said they had been stopped and questioned. On Avenue C and Fourth Street, 14 out of 52 people (about 27 percent) said they had been stopped and questioned.

During a conversation with The Local, Captain John Cappelmann, the new Commanding Officer of the Ninth Precinct, described stop-and-frisk as an “effective crime-fighting tool,” citing a Monday morning arrest in connection with a string of restaurant robberies in the neighborhood. He hypothesized, “If someone had seen one of the perps walking down the street the other day with a crow bar right before he crow-barred the window? You want to stop him before he commits the crime, right?”

But many East Village residents who spoke with The Local said they believed that stop-and-frisk was being applied selectively – a concern that last month prompted Community Board 3 to support a resolution, brought by Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, calling for the policy’s reform. Mr. Stringer, who spoke at a protest on Tuesday, has blamed the enforcement technique for “creating a wall of distrust between people of color and the police,” and is calling for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into whether the Police Department is committing racial profiling.

On Avenue C, Stephan Greyes, a 20-year-old criminal justice student at John Jay College, said that in January the police stopped and searched him on 14th Street. “They were looking for someone who had my description: my height and a backwards baseball cap,” he said. “A lot of us have the same description: five-nine, backwards hat and a minority.”

Omar Cintron, 28, said that the police searched him three years ago while he was waiting for a friend in front of his grandmother’s building. “I was actually kind of surprised because I was dressed up,” said Mr. Cintron, who is unemployed. “I was wearing slacks and a collared shirt. They said I fit the description of a robbery suspect.”

Mr. Cintron said he felt humiliated and degraded by the incident. “They see young guys, Hispanic or black, and they stop them. Sometimes they have a reason, but sometimes they’re stopping innocent young men,” he said. “Sometimes these police officers do help others, but other times they are out to harass.”

Captain Cappelmann said police officers have the right to stop, question, and possibly frisk anyone they reasonably suspect of committing a crime. “If you don’t think they’re committing a crime, or is going to commit a crime, or has committed a crime, then you don’t stop them,” he said. “Simple as that.”

Obie Johnson, a black, 66-year-old former Marine and Vietnam veteran, said he was stopped and searched against a wall by police who he said were refusing to allow anyone out of his building on East Third Street between Avenues C and D. “I was coming out of the building and the cops illegally searched me. They said, ‘There was an incident in the building – go back inside.’ I said, ‘If there was an incident, I’ll be safer if I go outside the building.’”

Captain Cappelmann said stop-and-frisk was a necessary part of police work. “What are you going to do? This guy just robbed a liquor store with a handgun. ‘Well, he fits the description, but I’m afraid to stop him because if I stop him and he didn’t do it…’ — you have to be able to do it. This is why New York State gives police the right to do it. It’s as simple as that. Is it controversial? Obviously. Is it effective as a policing tool? Yes. And it’s got to be done.”

Indeed, some Alphabet City residents welcomed the use of stop-and-frisk, citing concerns about safety in the neighborhood. “I wouldn’t blame the police,” said Carlos Oliver, 49, a resident of Fifth Street between Avenues C and D. “There’s a lot of drugs on Avenue D. I’m glad they stop and search people, because when you’re walking around at night, anything could happen.”

Citywide, a record 684,330 stops were made last year, 87 percent of which involved blacks or Hispanics, per the new data. According to the N.Y.C.L.U., 88 percent of stops made since Mayor Bloomberg first took office in 2002 resulted in no arrest being made and no summons being issued. In the East Village, street stops resulted in 508 arrests and 89 summonses, meaning that 16.5 percent of stops resulted in either action being taken.

Those numbers come on the heels of a front-page Village Voice article documenting numerous lawsuits brought as a result of stop-and-frisk enforcement, as well as news earlier this month that low-level marijuana arrests rose for the seventh straight year, with police making 50,684 arrests in 2011. Critics of police policy say that once police officers have stopped a person, they frequently order them to empty their pockets, then arrest them for having marijuana in public view, which is a misdemeanor offense under state law.

Have you been stopped and frisked? Tell us about it in the comments.