Instead Of Stop-And-Frisk, How About Stop-And-Shake?
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
One of the nation's top law enforcement officers, FBI Director James Comey, tackled tensions between communities of color and police in a major speech last week. The address drew praise for its candor, but critics say they were missteps as well. NPR's Joel Rose went to Comey's hometown of Yonkers, N.Y., a community that's trying a new way to tackle such tensions.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The speech was a big departure for a sitting FBI director. For one thing, Comey quoted a lyric from the Broadway musical "Avenue Q."
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
JAMES COMEY: Maybe it's a fact we all should face - everyone makes judgments based on race.
ROSE: Comey said police have unconscious racial biases just like the rest of us, and those biases can have real impacts on how officers do their jobs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
COMEY: The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others that officer has locked up. Two white men on the other side of the street, even in the same clothes, do not. And that drives different behavior. We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between the police and the communities they serve.
KAREN EDMONSON: It's rare that someone of his stature can be so honest and say, yeah, but we all have prejudices.
ROSE: Karen Edmonson is former president of the Yonkers chapter of the NAACP and an outspoken critic of the police department. She helped push the Department of Justice to investigate complaints of police misconduct there, an investigation that is still ongoing. Edmonson gives Comey credit for his honesty, but she wishes he had said more about his hometown.
EDMONSON: You know, Yonkers has a history. There's not just a police misconduct case. I kind of wanted him to bring it home for Yonkers and he kind of glossed over, you know?
ROSE: Director Comey did talk about the city in his speech, but mostly to point out that his grandfather served as police commissioner in the 1940s and '50s, when Yonkers was an overwhelmingly white, middle-class suburb of New York City. Now the city has a sizable African-American and Latino population, but the police force is still majority white, which is a source of tension. Yonkers is not unique in that way, but Comey seemed to downplay that kind of tension in his speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
COMEY: When you dial 911, whether you are white or black, the cops come - and they come quickly.
ROSE: But to many in Comey's hometown that does not ring true. Shawyn Patterson Howard heads the Yonkers YMCA.
SHAWYN PATTERSON HOWARD: You're going to get a response quicker in a neighborhood that is a little less threatening. Or, if it's a neighborhood that they've gone to over and over again and no one is ever going to give them information on who the bad guy is, they're not going to rush.
ROSE: Do you feel like the cops come quickly in your neighborhood?
NATE TAYLOR: No, not at all. Not at all.
ROSE: Nate Taylor grew up in Yonkers. He says he's used to being stereotyped by cops in his neighborhood.
TAYLOR: I think they look at me as a criminal just by looking at me 'cause of the color of my skin or the way I may dress sometimes. They probably see me as a criminal. And I haven't done anything wrong.
ROSE: If you talk to police in Yonkers they acknowledge that there's a lack of trust between the department and young black and Latino men, but they were trying to bridge that gap even before the FBI director's speech.
JOHN MUELLER: I think what Director Comey was really getting at was we have to stop being strangers, we have to know each other, and you can really build on some great things from there.
ROSE: John Mueller is a captain in the Yonkers PD and he's part of a new effort to get police and young people talking. The other half of that effort is a 27-year-old community activist named Hector Santiago. They are definitely an odd couple. Mueller is white, buzzed hair, tall. Santiago is shorter, Latino, he's a former gang member who acknowledges he was involved in all sorts of bad stuff, although he was never convicted of anything major.
HECTOR SANTIAGO: I would have never spoken to any cop at all - at all. But now I at least approach them to see if he's even, you know, a good guy or not.
ROSE: These days, Santiago owns his own cleaning business and he's the creator of something called the stop-and-shake. It's a play on stop-and-frisk, the controversial police tactic where cops stop and search people on the street without a warrant. Santiago says the idea is to get regular people to stop a cop on the street, shake hands, and introduce themselves - maybe even snap a quick selfie together to post on social media.
SANTIAGO: So instead of crossing the street when they see an officer 'cause they're scared to get stop-and-frisked for no reason, you know, now they're like, oh you know what, let me try this stop-and-shake thing out. And they'll pass by and they'll smile at the officer, hey how are you? And, you know, have you heard of the stop-and-shake?
ROSE: Santiago brought his idea to Yonkers Police Captain John Mueller back in the fall, and Mueller loved it.
MUELLER: The first step is the stop, then the shake, and then it's a conversation. And then it's kind of getting to know each other on a very personal level. And then all of a sudden, all whatever stereotypes people have pent-up inside, it kind of goes away because now you're looking at the person. I think what Hector's doing, which is the most important thing, is to break this barrier.
ROSE: Mueller is quick to say that this is starting small, but it could be the beginning of a bigger conversation, maybe the same one that FBI Director Comey was trying to start in his speech last week. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.