How Cops Justify Stop-and-Frisk


“I will break your f**king arm off right now,” a New York police officer shouts. “You want me to smack you?” warns another. The exclusive audio is shocking and the first of its kind. It is the only known audio evidence of a NYPD stop-and-frisk in progress, released Tuesday in the documentary “The Hunted and the Hated: An Inside Look at the NYPD’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy.”  The audio captures the experience of Alvin, a Harlem teen, who the police claim is being stopped for “being a f**king mutt.”  For New York communities of color, the recording represents an every day experience, and it will undoubtedly fuel the stop-and-frisk controversy that has been brewing for several years.  Clearly, the aggressive and even violently intimidating behavior of some NYPD officers cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. Of course, not everyone agrees. The back story only exacerbates the conflict.

The Center for Constitutional Rights reported a record 683,724 New Yorkers were subjected to the stop-and-frisk practice in 2011 alone.  84 percent of those stopped were Black and Latino community members, and the New York Civil Liberties Union claims 88 percent of people stopped were innocent. Such numbers generate controversy for the NYPD and New York State officials, and this new audio evidence will likely push the envelope of those discussions.

While the audio has received copious amounts of media as the smoking gun of stop-and-frisk controversy in New York, the rest of the film also gives great pause.  Eight minutes are devoted to anonymously interviewing several police who frame themselves as victims of the system and justify their participation in the stop-and-frisk practice.

“What civilians don’t understand is that the police department is, like, forcing us to do these unreasonable stops, or you’re gonna get penalized,” says one unidentified officer, masked, presumably to escape reprimand. Departmental policy and peer pressure are blamed while the officers interviewed strive to exculpate themselves and, we are to assume, all officers.

Weary of what appeared to be a justification of an unethical, abusive, and some would say illegal practice, I contacted co-producer Erin Schneider to confirm the intentions of the video.

“What we wanted to do with the video,” Schneider stated by phone on Tuesday, “is make it clear that these cops are doing what they are told and what they are told is what’s causing the problem.” Schneider mentioned that the documentary intended to “highlight the intense pressure that many, but not all, of the officers feel.”

Unfortunately, this idea that responsibility for one’s actions is based on the absence of pressure only serves to justify the actions of “New York’s Finest” under the “just doing my job” rationale.

Historically, arguing that one is “just doing his job” is more readily understood as the “Nuremberg defense,” popularized by Nazi war criminals during the WWII Nuremberg trials. While it would be fallacy to compare Nazis to the NYPD, the concept remains the same. “Just doing my job” and “I was just following orders” are defenses that seek to remove responsibility from an individual person and place it on the greater institution.  While the NYPD should absolutely be held responsible for stop-and-frisk abuses, we should not let individual officers off the hook so easily.

In his 2009 book, Just a Job?: Communication, Ethics, and Professional Life, Dr. George Cheney of the University of Utah looks at the commonly used phrase, noting that “just doing my job” is “invoked as a ready-made excuse, a cultural resource people can use to evade responsibility for their actions …”  Phrases like this, he explains, serve to suppress ethical questioning, effectively ending the conversation.  While the documentary is commendable for exposing institutional racism and even potentially building a bridge between aggrieved community members and police, what it mostly does is publicly justify the behavior of individual police officers, ending the discussion on who is responsible for stop-and-frisk abuses.

Cheney argues that the phrase is “culturally accepted” but does not simply “relieve one from ethical responsibility.”  Police, in fact, have more ethical responsibility than many, given the nature of their job, and should take such a responsibility seriously.

In their 2012 manual, Police Ethics: a Matter of Character, Douglas Perez and J. Alan Moore explain that police have an obligation similar to a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath, what they call the “principle of beneficence”  that requires police to have an ultimate obligation to “make people’s lives better … as well as prevent harm from coming to them.”  Perez and Moore argue, “Police officers are the individuals in our society who ought to be most directly driven by this obligation.”  Unfortunately for New York communities and the roughly 700,000 people who will be harassed this year via stop-and-frisk policy, some New York police officers have justified their decision to violate that obligation.

I asked Schneider about this, who responded, “the real impetus [of the documentary] was to kind of create some kind of pressure on the politicians, hopefully to push for an inspector general … there needs to be a place for these officers to go.”   One can imagine the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who wish that they, too, had a safe place to go – a place free from racial profiling, harassment, verbal and physical assault, and from police who refuse to take responsibility for their actions by claiming “Hey, I’m just doing my job.”

While Schneider describes the exclusive audio as “an essential piece of the dialogue to move things forward … to enrage people to the appropriate level so that they will finally do something about [stop-and-frisk],” it is not just the audio that is enraging.  The justification of what is heard on that audio is also enraging.  As a society, we should consider such a justification absurd.  Violating basic ethical principles to escape reprimand and get a promotion, ultimately causing harm to those you are sworn to protect, is the very foundation of corruption of human rights with which every citizen of every state should be concerned.

Erin Niemela is a graduate student in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University and a PeaceVoice syndicated journalist.

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