MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today, as you would expect, we are continuing to follow events in Moore, Okla., where residents are recovering from the impact of a deadly tornado. We decided to call on leaders from Joplin, Mo. Two years ago today, that town was also hit. So we thought this would be a good time to check in on Joplin's recovery, and see if there are any lessons Joplin residents can offer their neighbors.
But first, we are going to go back to New York City. On Monday, closing arguments were delivered in the federal civil rights challenge to the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy. Plaintiffs argued that the department engaged in racial profiling, citing data that 87 percent of the stops last year were of black and Hispanic people.
Yesterday, we heard from two law professors who are critical of the policy, including Delores Jones-Brown of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DELORES JONES-BROWN: The department is engaging in something I call appearance profiling. And so if they see a young, black or Latino male in certain types of clothing, like a hoodie or sagging pants, and they appear to be between certain ages, they automatically suspect them of criminality.
MARTIN: Today, we hear a different perspective - the perspective of the NYPD. Joining us now is Heidi Grossman. She was the lead attorney that defended the city during the 10-week trial. Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
HEIDI GROSSMAN: And thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Before we continue, I would like to note that we were originally scheduled to hear from Paul Browne, the deputy commissioner of the NYPD, but he later became unavailable, and we're glad Ms. Grossman could join us. So Ms. Grossman, as you heard, the plaintiffs argued that what may have been described as a policy to stop people based on behavior has devolved into stopping people based on their race and ethnicity. What was the city's defense during the trial?
GROSSMAN: Our defense is that we go to where the crime is. And once we go to where the crime is, we have our police officers keep their eyes open, make observations; and only when they make observations, do they go and make reasonable suspicion stops. We would also say that the plaintiffs just haven't met their burden of proof because all the 19 incidents that the plaintiffs describe, not one plaintiff could come forward and say that any officer stopped them because of their race. That is, basically, our defense.
MARTIN: Well, how did you account for witnesses like Officer Pedro Serrano, who surreptitiously recorded his officer pointing him in the direction of black males age 14 to 21. And there were other witnesses with similar testimony. How did you account for that? What was that about?
GROSSMAN: I think what we were able to develop through the testimony is that there are some officers who are very hard-working individuals, and some officers who are not as hard- working. And so when you have a very large police department of the size of the New York City Police Department, it's very important that officers do their job.
What our commanding officers are trying to do is to make sure that officers are doing what they're paid to do. And what they do is, they give information and intelligence to the police officers, and they expect officers to go out there and keep their eyes open. And when officers avoid doing the hard work that the officers are supposed to be doing, that's not good for the city. It's not good for the people. And the commanding officers were basically trying to give information to the police officers, especially Mr. Serrano, and that's what the police department wanted to do.
MARTIN: Why wouldn't that be saying go look for young black males? As opposed to look for people who have a gun in their hand. Or...
MARTIN: ...are dressed inappropriately for the day or have knocked somebody down.
GROSSMAN: Well, that is not profiling because what you have to understand is that when you look at the entire context of the tape that was played in evidence, the commanding officer was explaining to Officer Serrano about the conditions in the area. He gave him specific intelligence. He gave him specific information. And what he is explaining is that officers have to go to that area where the crime is happening. You don't want to send officers to where crime is not happening. And what is expected is that officers are going to go to the areas, and keep their eyes open. And so when they keep their eyes open, and they can observe reasonably suspicious behavior, it is only then that officers are supposed to take action. So we are not supposed to ignore what the victims of crime are reporting.
And I might add that the majority of victims are black and Hispanics in the area. They are begging for help, and they want to be able to walk to and from work in a safe way. And so it is incumbent upon us to have our officers go out there and do their job, and keep the city safe.
MARTIN: Shira Scheindlin, the judge presiding over the case, pointed to what she called a very high error rate - that only about 10 percent of the stops resulted in an arrest or summons. And the implication then is that this is - it's entirely too random, and that there's a very high error rate, and that this couldn't be based on reasonable suspicion because if it were, then the rate of people actually found with something illegal or doing something illegal would be higher. What's the city's response to that?
GROSSMAN: If you look at what the standard for making a stop is, it's reasonable suspicion. And what we do know is that when an officer makes a stop based on reasonable suspicion, sometimes the behavior that the officer observed ends up being innocent behavior. Sometimes, it is not innocent behavior and sometimes, we will never know whether it is innocent or not.
MARTIN: Forgive me, Ms. Grossman, the implication from the data - which the city doesn't dispute - is that 90 percent of the time, those people were innocent, or they were not engaging in any conduct that would warrant either an arrest or a citation. So wouldn't that indicate that most of the time, they are stopping innocent people?
GROSSMAN: I don't think that you can make that assumption. I think that very often, you can think of situations where individuals are about to commit a crime. Maybe they're walking around a car, and they're peeking into the window, and they're thinking maybe they would like to steal to car. There are all sorts of behaviors that someone can engage in, and if an officer sees behavior and thinks it's suspicious and then ends up stopping someone, it doesn't mean that he's going to find contraband.
But the standard of proof is different. Reasonable suspicion is less than probable cause. And what we do know is that probable cause - very often, you may have. It can also be for innocent behavior. The court has not acknowledged that you have to have some sort of hit rate and a success rate, in terms of the outcome of the stop.
MARTIN: The other - and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Heidi Grossman. She's the lead attorney for New York City as it defended its stop-and-frisk court challenge that ended earlier this week. Closing arguments were delivered on Monday. The other accusation made is that in part, what's motivating this is that there's a quota system, that officers are rewarded for making a lot of stops. What's the city's response to that?
GROSSMAN: Well, I think if you were to actually look at the numbers, and you actually looked at the hard facts, it's very easy to make assumptions about quota. It's easy to say numbers for numbers' sake. But when you actually look at the facts, there are about 18- to 22,000 officers on patrol. And if you consider the number of stops and the number of police encounters, what ends up happening is that the officers, on average, might stop maybe one to two or three people a month, at most.
When you consider that an officer works eight hours a day, 20 days a month, and these officers are going to the areas where crime is most rampant and where crime is occurring, and they keep their eyes open, to consider that officers are making so few stops, you have to put that into perspective. It is absolutely not about quotas and...
MARTIN: Can I ask you - we have only a couple of minutes left...
MARTIN: ...and I really do appreciate you coming in, especially after coming off of a very grueling, 10-week trial. I think it's well-established that police all over the country stop, question and search people based on reasonable suspicion. I think it's been upheld as constitutionally viable, and appropriate as a policy. But New York City seems to be the one place in the country where a significant number of people resent this.
They find it infuriating and humiliating and have been litigating on this issue, or attempting to litigate on this issue, for quite some time now. And I just have to ask you - you may consider this beyond the scope of your expertise - but why do you think that is; that this policy, in this particular place, seems to be engendering so much resentment?
GROSSMAN: It's very interesting that you raise the specter of the whole community being outraged about this because when our commanding officers go out to the community - and they have community meetings regularly - what they are hearing is that they want police to be in the communities. They want more police presence. And we are not hearing, when the officers and the commanding officers actually go and speak to the real people of New York - they are not hearing the same complaints that a vocal few are hearing.
When I go out there - and I am meeting with people myself; and I go to tenants' association meetings, and I go to different housing developments - and people come up to me and say, I'm too afraid to speak to the police because I don't want some of the people in the neighborhood to know I'm speaking with the police. And we have to deal with that, and our police officers have to go out there; and people are crying for the help of the police. It gives you perspective because it's a vocal few that come out and speak about it.
MARTIN: You say that - the real people. Are you suggesting that the people who are complaining about this aren't real people; that somebody like David Floyd, who's a medical student and the lead plaintiff in this case, isn't a real person? I'm puzzled by your - I'm puzzled by that.
GROSSMAN: The city of New York is made up of very diverse people and of all backgrounds, and everybody should have a say. And I think that there are a vocal few that have legitimate concerns, and they will speak out. But there are many people who are really crying for help from the police department.
MARTIN: Speaking of diversity, the New York Law Journal had a picture of the legal teams on both sides. And I could not help but notice that there was no one on the legal team defending the city who is of the demographic that is most affected by these stops, which is young black and Latino males. And I just have to ask, does that not raise any questions to you about whether or not the people who are most affected by this policy have been heard in this process?
GROSSMAN: I'm not sure that I know how to answer that question. I know that I am very balanced and try to look at everyone's perspective. And so to consider that I am not a person of color and I can't be sensitive to that...
MARTIN: Not just you, Ms. Grossman. You're one member of the team, or the leader of the team. Your entire - I'm talking about the entire legal team, which is not just you. It's an entire team defending the city, and I just felt that it's appropriate, since you raised the question of diversity - I mean, the argument is that this is tearing at the social fabric of the city because a particular group of people is experiencing something that other people in the city are not; and that they find it humiliating and onerous. And that is why I felt it appropriate to raise the question.
GROSSMAN: Well, you know what? What I think I can feel really proud about with the law department is that we look at merit, and we look at the hard work of everyone who works here, and we are colorblind to the people who are working in this office. And we have a very diverse office, and we have very hardworking people; and so I feel very proud that I can say that everybody on our team is selected on merit. And we don't look at color or background. We're trying to find the right people to work on the case, and put their effort and hard work into it.
MARTIN: Heidi Grossman is the lead attorney for New York City. She defended the challenge of the police department's stop-and-frisk policy or tactics, if you will. She was kind enough to join us from her office.
Heidi Grossman, we certainly appreciate your time. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
GROSSMAN: Thank you so much.
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Last fall I focused the introductory composition class I taught at CUNY’s Lehman College on stop-and-frisk and racial profiling at large. The course received the 2014 Diana Colbert Innovative Teaching Prize, awarded annually by the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in English. I post the materials I submitted here in the interest of open access: all of the following, except for my specific words, is free to use. If you’ve taught a similar class, let me know—perhaps we can build a site for such pedagogic and teaching materials. (Above image: “End Stop and Frisk” by sainthuck, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.)
Black and Latino young men are highly disproportionately stopped-and-frisked by New York City police officers, particularly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. (For representative New York Police Department data collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union, see here and here.) Although the stop-and-frisk program has been in place since at least 2002, debate over its propriety and effectiveness reached a peak last summer due to the city’s mayoral election, the media attention to now-mayor Bill De Blasio’s “mixed-race” family, and a federal court’s finding that stop-and-frisk violated both the 4th and 14th Amendments. At the same time, the George Zimmerman trial, which concluded with Trayvon Martin’s killer being found not guilty, amplified controversy about racial profiling and state power. So, too, did widely noted cultural representations such as Kanye West’s Yeezus album, with songs such as “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves,” a re-working of the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit,” and Ryan Coogler’s film Fruitvale Station, about 22-year-old Oscar Grant, slain by Oakland transit police in 2008.
Given these various cultural texts and discourses concerning racial violence, spanning—at a minimum—the white-supremacist terrorism of the “old South” and the everyday subjugation of black and Latino New Yorkers, it seemed an especially rich conjuncture to focus my English composition class at Lehman College on stop-and-frisk and the longer history of racial profiling in the United States. Indeed, given Lehman’s Bronx location, the higher rate of stop-and-frisk in the borough (not to mention lingering grief over local teenager Ramarley Graham, killed by a cop in 2012), and the college’s predominantly Latina/o and black students (see Lehman’s data here), I knew that many, if not all, of my students would be affected by the program, whether the young men targeted or their family members and friends. I also knew they would have experienced racial profiling in its other forms, whether the school-to-prison pipeline in operation at New York City public schools, the general entrapment of the prison-industrial complex and its attendant political economy, or the surveillance of department-store staff and their collusion with police (as experienced by a CUNY student that fall in a high-profile incident).
My pedagogy centers on connecting with students on their terms in order to facilitate critical thinking and discussion about the links between their individual and collective experiences and larger political, social, and economic problematics at local, national, and global scales. This scrutiny extends to the classroom and university, marked by its ongoing exclusion of racialized students (see, for example, here), and disciplinary methods and knowledges (see, for example, Rod Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things), including the very notions of “standard” English and normative academic writing that orient an introductory composition class (see Kevin Brown’s “Rhetoric and the Stoning of Rachel Jeantel,” the first assigned reading).
Indeed, the Zimmerman trial, for instance, in addition to showing the limits of the criminal-justice system for social justice, also highlighted the ongoing subjection of minoritized English speakers, as Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel was roundly mocked for her testimony. As such, the composition classroom is an ideal space to attend to the verbal dimensions of racial profiling at the same time as its other manifestations.
In this way, the first course readings (see below for full list) addressed the profiling of Jeantel’s rhetoric, affect, and appearance in the context of the authors’ personal experiences vis-a-vis profiling, thus framing the objectives of the course as a whole: a two-fold dynamic in which the students’ own experiences could serve as the initial ground on which to contest hegemonic discourse on race.
This unit, which included Roots’ drummer Questlove’s viral Facebook post about his experiences being profiled, culminated in the first paper assignment, a descriptive/narrative essay in which students intervened in a particular debate over racial profiling using their lived experience as the primary form of evidence. Subsequent units, each tied to a different type of essay writing, focused on multi-modal comparative analysis of popular music and music videos, expository analyses of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, and various arguments opposing stop-and-frisk specifically and racialized security mechanisms generally. The final paper prompt connected the course’s overall discussions to praxis, asking students to make an argument, supported by information from any two course readings, about what aspects of U.S. policing or prisons need to be changed.
Finally, although the oppositional capacity of social media was central to both class discussion and participation (students were required to submit reading responses via Tumblr), I also emphasized social media’s citational limits—that is, the ease with which correct attribution can go awry. This risk was the subject of the first class meeting, in which I handed out copies of a Facebook post quoting “bell hooks on the Zimmerman trial” that went viral —except the quote, from hooks’ 2001 book All About Love, does not specifically address the Zimmerman trial but rather white supremacy at large. Once again, though, it was a prime opportunity to discuss both racial profiling and composition practice.
Per Lehman College English department requirements, English Composition I is not predominantly literature-based, but with this second paper assignment, I introduced literary elements in the form of the lyrics to “Strange Fruit,” originally performed by Billie Holiday in 1939 and later covered by Nina Simone in the mid-1960s, and the lyrics to “Blood on the Leaves,” the 2013 Kanye West track that features Simone singing the lyric “Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees / Blood on the leaves” for its chorus. The paper assignment was to compare and contrast the two songs, which offered the critical challenge of how “Strange Fruit,” based on a poem by Bronx school teacher Abel Meeropol and recorded by Holiday in protest against lynching and revived by Simone at the height of the civil-rights struggle, related to the concerns West raises in his song, namely the complex intersections of romantic relationships and consumeristic bourgeois desires. As such, students had to think about both the literary aspects of each song’s lyrics as well as the differing, but related, historical contexts—that is, the history of U.S. racial oppression in service to white economic power. This history was further emphasized when West performed “Blood on the Leaves” at the MTV Music Video Awards in silhouette against an image of a tree Steve McQueen photographed while making 12 Years a Slave—a performance that generated fresh attention to the song right at the beginning of the semester.
Preparatory class work for writing the paper included lectures by me on the particulars of lynching under Jim Crow, augmented by multi-modal texts available on the course Tumblr and shown in class; close readings of the lyrics and their contexts (aided especially by the annotations of “Blood on the Leaves” on RapGenius.com); and intensive comparative discussion across several class sessions, which yielded an in-class exercise I designed on the basis of the students’ analysis to further hone the possible arguments that could be made (click on the following image for a clear view of the handout).
In the end, although some students remained resistant to seeing any connection between the two songs, everyone was able to see the historical continuum of black pain, on the one hand, and white economic gain, on the other. This lesson effectively set up subsequent class lessons on the continuance of racialized social control in the U.S., including current forms such as stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration. At times it was also entertaining, as all the students had an opinion of West, and they enjoyed discussing pop culture.
Course Readings for Each Unit
Unit 1: the narrative/descriptive essay
- Kevin Browne, “Rhetoric and the Stoning of Rachel Jeantel”
- Mariame Kaba, “Rachel Jeantel: Through a Glass Darkly…”
- Questlove’s Facebook post
- Kim Foster, “Why the Questlove Article Exposes Our Racism—and Our Sexism”
Unit 2: the compare/contrast essay
- Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” (lyrics)
- Kanye West, “Blood on the Leaves” (lyrics)
- West, “Blood on the Leaves” (VMA performance)
- Jasiri X, “Blood on the Leaves Remix” (lyrics)
Unit 3: the expository essay
- Angela Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in The Age of Colorblindness (excerpt)
Unit 4: the argument essay
- Darius Charney, “The NYPD’s Criminal Stop-and-Frisk Record”
- New York Times editorial, “Reform Stop-and-Frisk”
- The Nation video, “Stopped-and-Frisked: ‘For Being a F**cking Mutt'”
- Mimi Kim et al., “A World Without Walls: Stopping Harm and Abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex”
Supplemental readings/texts available on the course Tumblr.