Brownsville Before the Stop-And-Frisks: From Neglect to Harassment


The Times‘ front page reveals this morning that the NYPD did 52,000 stop-and-frisks in an eight-square-block area of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn over the last four years, making arrests in less than 1 percent of the cases.

On a single day in January 2009, cops stopped 109 people and bagged three of them on misdemeanors, two involving grass. They would have hit higher numbers on any Midtown Park Avenue string of blocks.

The setting for the Times story was not a distant outpost to me. I walked those eight blocks weekly, and at times daily, for 15 years.

From 1968 to 1983, I never saw cops stop-and-frisk a soul. In fact, cops were so invisible that crime victims sometimes didn’t even bother to call them. In the eyes of NYPD brass, this swath of New York has, over decades, moved from obscurity to obsession.

As the Times‘ piece suggests, the passage from an under-policed neighborhood to an over-policed one is a saga of triumph and peril, pitting a crime rate plunge against an harassment rate explosion. Instead of searching for a middle ground or even acknowledging a problem, the department just pounds tactically ahead, driven by data that documents that the only way to improve its citywide numbers is by focusing fierce firepower on the mean streets where crime still clusters.

Last September, Mr. Brooklyn, Borough President Marty Markowitz, and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer announced that the two New York City Housing Authority projects that occupy virtually all of these eight blocks were getting new surveillance cameras.

The police brass at the press conference said that one of the projects, Brownsville Houses, had experienced 23 crimes so far in 2009, and the other, Tilden, 25 crimes, significant declines from the year before and a dramatic drop over eight years. Since the Times reported that at times the police average 61 stops a day, more than the combined crime tally for nine months, it doesn’t require a mathematics degree to sense a grating statistical disproportion.

The wiring for the 157 cameras planned for the lobbies, hallways and entranceways at these projects is going on right now, and eventually $4.5 million in cameras will be installed. Once the cameras are on guard, it’s a safe bet that the stops will relocate. Imagine what the cameras might have recorded had they been in place the last four years — footage that might even force 1 Police Plaza to take stock.

For the years I was Brownsville’s token white, I was on the board of a head start program on Livonia Avenue that served these projects, and my son’s godfather was its director and my best friend. I was in and out of the child care center constantly, knew families in every building, and roamed them without ever becoming a crime victim, or even consciously fearing that I would be one. It was home to me. The only police presence were occasional Housing Authority squad cars circling the 43 buildings in these two developments, as well as other giant projects nearby.

The Times interviewed 26-year-old Jonathan Guity, a legal assistant with no criminal record who lives in one of these projects and estimated he’d been stopped 30 to 40 times. Guity reminded me of all the wonderful people I once knew who built decent lives in these tough towers. In a world ruled now by numbers, there is apparently no way to spare them indignity if we want to make them safe.

Additional Research by: Adam Schwartzman, Gavin Aronsen, Jenny Tai, Michael Cohen, and Nicole Maffeo.