Stop-and-Frisk: Build Trust, Not Bust It

The debate over "stop-and-frisk" police tactics is front and center in New York City and elsewhere in the nation. This policy goes to our very definition of community, leading to a fundamental question: are these tactics intended to build or bust trust in a community?

If stop-and-frisk is to be used, then police departments must build these approaches based on a simple but profound principle: The police are there to serve the community, even help build community. This will require a shift in orientation and practice for some departments and their officers. But such steps are vital to the health of communities.

A compelling video about a high school senior from Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood helps make this point. He tells of his experiences with New York City police who have now stopped and frisked him at least seven times. The first time he was 13 years old. He had walked one block from his home to his friend's house so they could walk to school together. The police saw him standing in front of his friend's house and proceeded to look through his book bag, rough him up, search his pockets and force him to spread his legs.

The high school senior, Kasiem, said the experience left him "frightened and confused." One result: now he thinks of crossing the street every time he sees a cop coming toward him. He went on to say that he should feel like "a citizen of New York” – not a criminal.

What would it mean if police departments approached stop-and-frisk from the standpoint of building community trust, not busting it? How would they decide to approach and talk to someone like Kasiem?  How would they work with neighbors, shopkeepers and others to understand the real threats in a neighborhood? What would it take for Kasiem to feel protected – not targeted - by the police? And how would the police and neighborhood residents join forces to protect the innocent – more to the point, to help create safe, connected communities?

A federal district judge recently ruled that New York City's stop-and-frisk tactics are unconstitutional. She then outlined a specific list of remedies that require widespread police training, supervision, monitoring and discipline. Some critics of her ruing, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have said that the current approach has led to a sharp decline in crime, and that the remedies will be enormously expensive and time-consuming.

I wish the judge and those involved had instead taken a different path: Rather than draft a host of remedies, require the police department, community groups and others to work together to develop a new stop-and frisk-policy. In the process, they should use the following question as the driving factor: "What approach would build trust among all people in New York City, not bust it?"

According to some news accounts, Los Angeles is trying to do this. There, former New York City Police Chief William J. Bratton has teamed up with community leaders, former and current gang members and other groups to design and implement a policy and approach that respects and engages the community and enjoys community support. The verdict is still out.

Let’s find ways to build trust, not bust it. After all, people don’t want to live in a community where they’re under threat, followed and under suspicion - especially when they are law-abiding citizens who love their neighborhood and community.  When it comes to stop-and-frisk we do have a choice.