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State lawmakers in New York are pushing to rein in the aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department. Critics say the tactics amount to widespread racial profiling of young blacks and Latinos. But supporters counter that stop-and-frisk is one reason the city's crime rate is lower than it's been in decades, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Six hundred and eighty-four thousand, that's how many times the NYPD says it stopped and interrogated people on the street last year, the most since the department started keeping track a decade ago. No neighborhood saw more of those stop-and-frisks than East New York, a predominantly black and Latino section of Brooklyn.
FRANCIS WILSON: I know to stay out their way because, I don't know, times have changed.
ROSE: Francis Wilson says he learned his lesson the hard way when he was stopped and arrested a few years ago.
In theory, the police need a reasonable suspicion that you've committed a crime before they can stop, question and frisk you. But in practice, young black and Latino men say that's not how it works in New York.
JASON CABEY: They just told me to turn around, put my hands on the wall, and they frisked me, just to search me. They didn't tell me what the person did or anything like that. They just said you just fit the description.
ROSE: Jason Cabey says he's been stopped by police many times in the last few years.
CABEY: Nowadays, the cops, they do whatever they want. That's how I feel. I don't think it's right, but that's how it is, man.
ROSE: Stop-and-frisk isn't new. It's been part of the NYPD's playbook since 1991 at least. But critics point out that only 10 percent of stops result in a summons or arrest, and that the vast majority of subjects - more than 87 percent - are black or Latino.
City Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn says that's racial profiling and it's a problem.
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: It creates a culture that's festering in the NYPD. That culture means you can treat people different depending on what they look like.
ROSE: Williams who is black, with long dreadlocks, had his own run-in with the NYPD last September when he was arrested during a Labor Day parade in Brooklyn. But police insist the stop-and-frisk program is making the city safer.
RAY KELLY: I think it's an important tool, certainly not the only tool that we use to keep this city safe.
ROSE: Police Commissioner Ray Kelly defended the practice in an interview on a local TV news channel last month.
KELLY: I think it's one of the tactics and strategies that helped us reduce murders by 51 percent in the Bloomberg decade, I'll call it, from the decade before. The vast majority of those lives saved are young people, young people of color. So what we're talking about is very serious business.
ROSE: Polls show that New York City voters split along racial lines when it comes to stop-and-frisk. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that a majority of whites support the NYPD's tactics, while only 27 percent of blacks do.
But critics hope the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida will spur more debate about racial profiling here too.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
ROSE: Members of the city council wore hoodies on the steps of New York City Hall last week in honor of Trayvon Martin. Lawmakers held a similar protest at the state capitol in Albany, including Senator Eric Adams of Brooklyn. He hopes that case will focus more attention on the racial profiling of young black and Latino men.
STATE SENATOR ERIC ADAMS: Unfortunately, it took the death of Trayvon for people to finally hear their voices, that they are tired of being second-class citizens in a first-class country.
ROSE: Adams is also a retired sergeant in the NYPD. He and his colleagues in Albany have proposed several bills aimed at limiting how the department can use stop-and-frisks. For instance, one that would make it illegal to set a quota for the number of stops officers have to make, and several others intended to take racial profiling out of stop-and-frisks.
ADAMS: You don't want to take the tool away completely. It is a useful tool when it's not abused.
ROSE: But even these relatively modest reforms seem unlikely to clear the state legislature, which means that stop-and-frisk may remain a fact of life for black and Latino men in New York City.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.