MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start the program today talking about a subject we've discussed before. It's that policing tactic known as stop-and-frisk. Police department across the country have used this technique, but it's gotten a lot of attention in New York City where activists have loudly decried it as racist and demeaning while city and police officials have defended it equally vehemently as a major factor in that city's significant drop in street crime in recent years.
In New York, the policy was declared unconstitutional by a federal district court in New York last summer. The judge referred to it as, quote, a policy of indirect racial profiling, unquote. But that hasn't stopped other major cities in the U.S. from implementing similar strategies. Writer Daniel Bergner wanted to take a fresh look at the question of whether the tactic is worth it.
So he decided to take a look at Newark, New Jersey, just a stone's throw away from New York City. He wrote about those tactics in Newark and beyond in the latest issue of The Atlantic. The piece is titled "Is Stop-and-Frisk Worth It?" And he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
DANIEL BERGNER: Thanks, Michel. It's nice to be on the program.
MARTIN: Also with us for additional perspective is Gemar Mills. He is the principal of Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. And he's featured in that recent Atlantic story. Welcome to you, Principal Mills. Thank you for joining us, also.
GEMAR MILLS: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, Mr. Bergner, let me start with you. In Newark, they don't call it stop-and-frisk. The police call it field inquiries, right. And you decided to ride along with the Newark police and actually see these field inquiries in action. So tell me what you saw.
BERGNER: So I went out on several nights, the Newark department was quite open about allowing me access, which is to their credit, and watched two policeman at work, watched them stopping anyone that they deemed suspicious-looking and ask for ID, peppered those people with questions, frisked them, made - ran warrant checks, etc. All of the very same things that the New York department has done so often and that has engendered so much controversy. So I wanted to get an up-close look at what this looked like through the police's eyes, and then, of course, also spent lots of time with people in the community looking at it from their perspective as well.
MARTIN: Principal Mills, what about that? I mean, in the piece, you compare being stopped and frisked to getting robbed. Talk a little bit more about that if you would.
MILLS: Yeah, so to be stopped and frisked and then to know that you technically didn't do anything, it puts you in this space as if you've been violated. So similar to being robbed, you know, when someone takes something that belongs to you that you worked for and you earned and it's no longer there, you feel a sense of low self-esteem or you feel like helplessness.
Right, in a stop-and-frisk, it's the same situation because here you have a law and then there's other constitutional rights, and the law is allowing someone to pretty much supersede those rights. And then if nothing is found or there's no warrants, then it's kind of like, OK, we apologize. Have a good day.
MARTIN: Are you talking - and you're talking here - are you talking about how your students feel or are you talking about how you feel? Because you've certainly been stopped. I mean, the piece describes where you've been stopped. You've been stopped just because you stopped your car to talk to students.
MILLS: So I'm thinking both. From a student standpoint, I mean, they were very explicit about their experience in the way it left them. But for me, as someone who has graduated from college, earned a Master's, pursuing a doctorate, to be stopped, you want to be civil and you don't want to, you know, basically cause any other trouble for me to have to get out of the car. You know, so you're just trying to be - have a balance of, you know, why is this actually occurring, but let me be civil and provide you with the information you're asking me for so I can move on. So the experience in itself is not a good feeling.
And, you know, if the wrong person - because it really depends on who's conducting the stop, right. So if they feel, you know, the need to take it a step further, then I would have been out the car. You know, they would've ignored the fact that - of who I said I was.
MARTIN: So, you know, you talked about, you know, a lot - central to this is in part who's doing the stopping. But, Daniel Bergner, a lot of it is who's being stopped. That's - I mean, race is a major part of this question, right. And you talked about this one encounter where you rode along with two officers who stopped a group of Hispanic men in front of one of their families. And you asked the officers if they would have done the same if those men had been white.
BERGNER: Well, of course, race is at the center of this whole issue. And I think that the incident that Principal Mills was recounting just brings this up so well 'cause the sad irony of that moment is Principal Mills was driving along, saw one of his students who dropped out of school, called him over to the car. I hope, Principal Mills, I'm getting this right - called him over to the car...
BERGNER: ...To encourage him to come back to school. And the police, seeing this interaction at the car window, decided, no, that's suspicious. We're going to pull of Principal Mills. Well, if that had been me, a white person, the chances that I would have been pulled over - much lower. You know, on the flip side of that pain, however, is this stark fact that cities have become notably safer - New York is the biggest example of this - during the stop-and-frisk era. And though it's difficult to credit stop-and-frisk completely with that change, it's pretty clear that what we call now proactive policing has played a part in that. And we don't want...
MARTIN: Well, wait, but isn't that the crux of the question? That's the question that you were investigating. Can you credit stop-and-frisk with these dramatic decreases in street crime that have occurred in this time period in these areas that have been studied closely? Yes or no?
BERGNER: Cannot possibly give you or no question, but I'll tell you what. For a long while, sort of liberal side of the political spectrum have said, well, the drop in crime has been caused by demographics, aging populations, end of the crack epidemic. Even some people have posited legalized abortions have led to fewer, you know, single-parent homes, etc. and thus, fewer young men prone to lives of crime. There's a fascinating book by a Berkeley law professor, who himself comes from a very liberal background, and came to his conclusions with lots of misgivings.
But he goes through those arguments, and the data just doesn't back them up. And so what you're left with is policing tactics being significantly responsible. And so you're put up against, you know, two conflicting and very legitimate agendas. One is the deterring crime, and the other is treating people with constitutional fairness. And they don't fit together very easily. And that's what so makes the story so painful.
MARTIN: You're saying - what you're saying is there's a trade-off, and people have to deal with the trade-off. The trade-off is that you can get these results, but a lot of people are not going to not like their encounters with the police as a consequence.
BERGNER: I'd add two things. One, I'd say it more strongly. It's not just people aren't going to like, people are going to suffer the kind of indignity and the kind of demoralizing shame that I think Principal Mills is alluding to and his students certainly spoke to very directly. The second thing I would add is I'm actually not sure that we face a completely stark trade-off. I think there may be some middle ground. I think we may be starting to see that in New York. I think it's possible to carry out this policy if you really train your police rigorously.
MARTIN: Let me back up for a second. You alluded to this, Principal Mills - I mean, one of the things you were saying was, look, this is demeaning. I mean, this is the demeaning...
MILLS: Yes, it is.
MARTIN: ...In a way that I don't think a lot of people who it hasn't happened to get. On the flipside of that, do you believe that the people who benefit most from a reduction in crime are people who live in traditionally crime-ridden neighborhoods and that their streets are safer as a result of this policy?
MILLS: It can be true to a certain extent, right. So if a crime-filled neighborhood has a thousand people and then you arrest 600 of them, well, there's only 400 left to live amongst the community so therefore you're going to feel better about the situation and it's going to be safe, right. But if 600 people were stopped and the other 300 people were let go because you found nothing, then you have a community enraged versus a community that feels safer.
So I guess it all depends on the way in which you look at it. So we're looking at numbers on paper, but if we're actually taking into account the qualitative data of the people, they would definitely tell you that I would rather not have been stopped-and-frisked than to benefit from crime being lowered in my neighborhood.
MARTIN: Do you think it's worth it?
MILLS: Me, personally?
MARTIN: Yeah, you.
MILLS: I want to say that it's worth it, right, when I look at numbers. But when I talk to my students, I know the experiences I went through, I know the way I've grown - I would say no. I just don't think that we should be invading people's privacy. There should be a deeper investigation before we just decide that this person is a criminal or this person is suspicious, right. It needs to go further than your intuition.
MARTIN: Daniel Bergner, are there ways that this could be done in such a way that you achieve what presumably most people want to achieve, which is safer communities where people are not as tempted to do wrong, but that people going about their business don't feel that they're going to be, you know, publicly demeaned because they leave their house?
BERGNER: Right, so the following will sound a bit naive - however it comes up over and over again with criminologists, and it's actually been tried in a couple of police departments - and that is to train police in two ways. One, train them to be a lot more careful about their standards for who they're identifying as possible suspects, possible criminals. The second is to deal with whoever you're stopping with respect.
And it sounds - you know, even to the kids at Principal Mills' school who I asked about this, one of them said, come on, you're not going to get policeman to say please to me as they ask me to empty my pockets. Well, maybe not, but maybe we can get a little bit there. And, you know, one example comes to mind - I think years ago the San Diego department chief sent his officers, believe it or not, off to a neighboring city to wander around late at night and get themselves stopped.
And all of them - I think to a man - anyway, more or less came back feeling pretty shaken by the experience. And it's that kind of thing that may mitigate some, it won't mitigate all of the pain that's involved in this kind of program.
MARTIN: Daniel Bergner's article "Is Stop-and-Frisk Worth It?" appears in the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic. He was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Gemar Mills is the principal of Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. And he was kind enough to join us from member station WBGO in Newark. Thank you both so much for joining us.
BERGNER: Thank you, Michel.
MILLS: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.