By Jennifer Peltz
Civil rights and community groups that joined forces to decry New York Police Department tactics now aim to become an electoral force by registering thousands of voters concerned about the practice known as stop and frisk.
From an open-mike night for high-school seniors to a Brooklyn subway station to a shopping area in a heavily Asian-American community, the advocates said Monday they were setting out to energize people, especially young ones, who may see their frustrations with stop and frisk or the NYPD's surveillance programs as reasons to vote when they might not otherwise.
With a high-stakes election at stake this fall, "we need our next mayor to be sensitive to the issues that we're going through," Aaron Hinton, a member of an organization that advocates for people affected by HIV and drug policies, said at a news conference outside City Hall. Hinton says he has been stopped more than 30 times.
The voter drive signals how a long-simmering debate over stop and frisk is coalescing into a factor in city politics, particularly the campaign to elect a successor to three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He has vehemently defended the practice as a legal and crucial crime-fighting tool.
The tactic — police stopping, questioning and sometimes patting down people based on suspicions that may not meet the legal bar for arrest — has the Supreme Court's approval. But the NYPD's heavy use of it has engendered complaints as the number of stops rocketed up in recent years, totaling almost 5 million in a decade.
Police and Bloomberg credit stop and frisk with deterring violence, netting hundreds of illegal guns and knives a year and making citizens safer in a city where rates of major crimes have dropped precipitously. Skeptics call the practice racially biased, noting that more than 80 percent of those stopped are black or Hispanic, and they say it intimidates innocent people and has little impact on crime. Less than 15 percent of the stops result in arrests or weapons confiscations.
The issue has gained a political spotlight in the last year, propelled by factors including an ongoing federal civil rights trial over stop and frisk and City Council proposals to set new rules for the encounters. Meanwhile, growing awareness of the NYPD's widespread spying on Muslims, as revealed in a series of stories by The Associated Press, has forged ties between Muslim-American advocates and the stop-and-frisk opponents.
Bloomberg forcefully endorsed both the surveillance and stop and frisk programs in a speech last week.
"The special interest groups who know nothing about policing, and some elected officials who have never had responsibility for some public safety strategies, are putting ideology and election year politics above public safety," he said.
Activists bristled at that Monday.
"Our special interest is security, safety and the dignity of our communities," retorted Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York.
Her group is supporting Communities United for Police Reform, the coalition spearheading the voter registration drive. There's no budget specifically for the effort; the dozen nonprofit groups involved just plan to add it to their activities, organizers said.
The group says it won't endorse candidates. But leaders hope showing that many voters object to the NYPD's use of stop and frisk will prompt the contenders to pledge changes, or at least make their positions clear.
Mayoral candidates are split on the issue. Several Democrats have said the practice needs changing; one, City Comptroller John Liu, has called for abolishing it. Some Republicans, meanwhile, have embraced the NYPD's view.
Voters disapprove of stop and frisk by a margin of 51 to 43 percent but have positive views overall of the police department, according to a Quinnipiac University poll last month.
While stop and frisk may not be a make-or-break issue for many New Yorkers, "it might energize a significant bunch of voters," the poll's director, Maurice "Mickey" Carroll, said by phone Monday.