Families Against "Stop and Frisk"
For New Yorkers working and living in Harlem, the South Bronx, and similar communities, police "stop and frisk" practice has recently become a common topic of conversation. According to the Urban Justice Center, "stop and frisks" have increased by 600% since 2002. In 2010, Blacks or Latinos were involved in 87% of the year's 614,000 stops; and in 93% of the stops in which force was used.
Child Welfare Organizing Project has been a North Star Fund grantee since 1998. They most recently received a Fall 2011 Movement Leadership grant.
How is this practice experienced at street level in our communities? Families live in fear. Law abiding high school students with no juvenile or criminal records are being stopped, put up against the wall, and searched, sometimes 3 to 4 times per month, often on their own block on their way home from school. In December 2011, one of our parent leaders saw a neighbor's son being stopped and frisked in front of their own building. When she asked the police what they were doing, and said, "These are good kids," she was forced face-down to the sidewalk, handcuffed, arrested, and charged with obstruction of justice. As such encounters become increasingly common, a state-of-siege mentality sets in. A whole generation of youth and their parents are losing respect for police authority, seeing the NYPD more as an occupying army than as potential helpers and protectors. This mentality, while totally understandable, seems clearly dangerous to both the police and the community.
Yet on March 15, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly angrily defended the stop and frisk practice at a City Council hearing. He got into a particularly heated interchange with our councilwoman from East Harlem, Melissa Mark-Viverito, challenging her to explain what solutions to criminal violence she had to offer that were more effective than stop and frisk. Strangely, the Commissioner seemed unable to acknowledge or comprehend the very real solutions that have been emerging through community driven processes. For example, Councilwoman Mark-Viverito and her constituents have been working since June 2011, when she first formally convened an East Harlem Youth Violence Task Force. The task force focuses not on aggressive law enforcement, but on positive youth engagement, violence prevention, and proactive youth development. The community's preference for strategies that value and nurture youth, rather than control and punish them, also seemed oddly incomprehensible to news media reporting on the hearing. Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) is another source for good ideas for practicable policies. CPR is a coalition that includes many current and former North Star grantees, including Picture the Homeless, Make the Road New York, Justice Committee, and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. They are pushing for legislation that would substantially reduce the number of encounters between police and residents that are based on profiling and discrimination.
A similar dynamic exists in current child welfare practice. The Child Welfare Organizing Project is a self-help and advocacy group of New York City parents who have been affected by the NYC Administration for Children's Services (ACS). We have offices in East Harlem and Highbridge, where parents from these and similar New York City communities, comprised largely of people of color living in poverty, work together for system change. In late 2011, we met with recently-appointed ACS Commissioner Ronald Richter, at his invitation. Parents spoke to Commissioner Richter passionately and eloquently about the value of the ACS Community Partnership Project (which is currently marginally resourced), the use of Parent Advocates in foster care, and the importance of repairing the ACS system of community-based Preventive Services, badly damaged by recent budget cuts, bureaucratic errors, and questionable policy decisions.
The Commissioner seemed to listen, and spoke about his own goals and objectives, many of which seemed admirable. A few weeks later, he published his 2011-2013 strategic plan. We read the plan over and over, searching in vain for any evidence of our conversations with the commissioner. Not unlike Commissioner Kelly at the City Council hearing, although he had appeared to be present and listening, Commissioner Richter ignored the voices of the community. Much of his strategic plan focuses on interventions that may be seen as the child welfare equivalent of aggressive surveillance and enforcement: putting more resources into traditional child protection investigations, hiring retired police officers as investigative consultants, use of intensive, intrusive, short-term clinical interventions, expediting termination of the parental rights.
While some of the proposed models of family services, such as Multi-Systemic Therapy do have a documented track record of success, they are all clinical models that identify individual "dysfunctional" parents and families as both primary source of risk to children, and the primary objects of intervention. What is missing from the plan is any fundamental understanding or support for community-led child protection strategies. The plan is unresponsive to parents' self-expressed needs and preferences. It includes no mention of successful models of community engagement such as the Bridge Builders Storefront program in Highbridge, or the use of peer advocates. Services are something to be imposed upon families, often by court order, following an invasive child protective investigation. The plan includes no safe, voluntary pathways to service for families struggling to raise children in challenging, stressful neighborhoods. And it contained no commitment to work with community leaders to relieve some of the stresses that may lead to family dysfunction in the first place.
Not unlike the NYPD, ACS is presented, and perceived, as a powerful outside agent of social control, airlifted into communities whose members it appears neither to fully comprehend nor respect. The agency identifies its primary functions as monitoring and surveillance, but it is constantly poised to strike, sometimes seemingly at random, often with terrifying and damaging results. How can either the police or ACS ever hope to effectively protect communities in which they are hated and feared? Home-grown leaders like Melissa Mark-Viverito, and organizations like CWOP and CPR, are offering, and modeling, constructive strategies and solutions. Yet we are often made to feel marginal and invisible. When will the public agencies that exist to serve us learn to see us primarily as partners, not as perpetrators?