Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin found New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policing practices unconstitutional, ordered immediate reforms and appointed a monitor to oversee them. Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded in a press conference that afternoon, claiming that Judge Scheindlin’s reforms would have a negative impact on the safety of New York families. “I worry for my kids and I worry for your kids,” Bloomberg said. To his critics, it was a statement that exemplified the glaring disparity between the mayor’s rhetoric and his actual policy regarding the welfare of children.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union’s analysis of NYPD data, more than a fifth of New Yorkers affected by stop-and-frisk in 2011 were, in fact, children. That year, 21 percent of NYPD street stops (145,652 stops) targeted people between ages eight and 18, and 89 percent of the youths stopped were black or Latino. More than 60 percent of those stops resulted in a frisk, although only 1.4 percent of the individuals turned out to have a weapon, while at least 90 percent of them were innocent of any wrongdoing.
Young people are often stopped on their way to or from school and work, affecting their attendance records and sometimes causing them to lose their jobs. Brooke Richie-Babbage, founder of the Resilience Advocacy Project (RAP), says that police stops often start as early as 14 and 15 years old. “The fabric of these kids’ lives is impacted in a concrete way,” says Richie-Babbage. Sarah Murslim, a 17-year-old Queens resident and intern at RAP, was stopped four times over the course of her sophomore and junior years of high school. “I constantly feel like, instead of them protecting me, I have to protect myself from them,” she says. “Usually teens do not turn to the cops because of the frequent stop-and-frisk around our area.”
Stop-and-frisk and so-called quality of life policing have targeted the city’s most vulnerable young populations. According to John Blasco, Lead Organizer at FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), over 40 percent of New York’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and many of them have nowhere to go but the street. An increased police presence in New York’s West Village – the birthplace of the modern LGBTQ rights movement – has left many young people terrified to spend time there. Officers stop teens for standing on corners or laying on benches. Young transgender women of color, a highly targeted group under stop-and-frisk, often face prostitution-related charges. Police search for condoms in order to use them as evidence, an especially egregious practice considering that city agencies like the Department of Health distribute condoms in the same area. Blasco says that Mayor Bloomberg’s purported concern about kids’ safety runs counter to the lived experiences of the marginalized communities fighting for police accountability. “In reality,” he says, “the violence we’re facing is often from the NYPD.”
The aggressive policing of public spaces under NYPD Comissioner Ray Kelly, combined with erosion of community spaces and social programs under the Bloomberg administration, has left many of the young people most at risk of being stopped – youth of color, LGBTQ and gender nonconforming, low-income, homeless, immigrant and Muslim populations, to name only some – feeling like they have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Advocates like Richie-Babbage argue that the most effective way to increase children’s safety is to invest in community-based initiatives that empower youth and connect them with caring adults, such as employment and after-school programs – both of which have been drastically cut under the Bloomberg administration. The city’s most recent budget attempted to eliminate 41,000 after-school slots for school-aged students and 8,000 childcare slots for young children, disproportionately affecting low-income communities.
Remarkably, the mayor acknowledged the importance of after-school programs earlier this summer, at a press conference denouncing the Community Safety Act meant to address police harassment and racial profiling in communities of color: “You take a look at who’s killed, this is clearly a societal problem that most of the crime is concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods,” Bloomberg said. “We have to improve our schools, we have to have after-school programs.” Under his administration, after-school spots have been reduced by 35 percent since 2008.
Bloomberg has reduced social programs for New York’s poorest children while adamantly defending police practices that criminalize them – even after those policies are found to be unconstitutional. For his critics, the question is clear: Which kids is Bloomberg really worried about protecting?