MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: We're looking ahead to the holidays and thinking about ways to do good and make a difference. We'll have a series of conversations that begin today.
But first, crime has been much in the news in major cities across the country. Horrible incidents have grabbed the headlines in cities like Newark, Baltimore, Washington and New York. But in that story line, New York City seems to be writing its own chapter.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and current Mayor Michael Bloomberg have both boasted that New York is the safest big city in America. But throughout the years, many have wondered whether the price of safety is too high, especially for black men. Citizen complaints against the New York Police Department have risen by 80 percent in the last five years, and legal claims against the NYPD have gone up 79 percent.
And the department's stop and frisk program, where officers are encouraged to detain and search those they consider suspicious, has drawn numerous complaints about racial profiling.
On Sunday, New York Post reporter Leonardo Blair wrote an account of his experience with stop and frisk. He says he was detained without a good reason outside of his relative's house in the Bronx by two police officers.
Mr. Blair joins us from our New York bureau. Also joining us is Stanley Crouch, the critic and writer. He's on the phone.
Mr. LEONARDO BLAIR (Reporter, New York Post): Hello.
Mr. STANLEY CROUCH (Critic and Writer): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Mr. Blair, you wrote about your experience in Sunday's Post. You said you just parked you car near your aunt's house in the Bronx, and you saw a police car. What next?
Mr. BLAIR: I was walking up one street, Arnow Avenue, and as I turned to where I lived - the street where I lived, on Tenbroeck Avenue, I noticed a cop car behind me. And I felt safe for a moment - seriously - until I looked at their faces, and they were kind of staring at me. And then, they rolled - the officer rolled the window down, and they asked me a question. They said - with a tone that was extremely dehumanizing and degrading, they had no respect for me at all - what are you doing coming from that car? And I turned around. I wasn't sure. I was so shocked by the question because I knew that's - you know, that's my car. And I said, what? Immediately, Officer Castillo, he jumps out of the car and he's in my face, almost spitting in my face. He said to me, do you understand English? He's shouting, answer the question. I was so insulted by his tone and everything.
It just came out. It slipped out of mouth: No hablo ingles. And he started off for about, you know, a couple seconds, and I cut him off. And I said, what do you mean by what am I doing coming from that car? That's my car. In the same tone that I'm talking to you now. And he said to me so, oh, you speak English.
And immediately, he told me to put my hands in the air. I obeyed, and he frisked me. And I thought his colleague took my bag and started searching it. I thought he was done because he was standing, then his colleague was standing on - my hands came down, and he got upset. Did I tell you to put your hands down? I said oh, sorry, I didn't know I couldn't put my hands down.
And I was getting ready to put them back up, and he grabbed my left arm, twisted it behind my back and cuffed me. I am, like, at a loss right now...
MARTIN: And then they put you in a holding cell? They took you down to the station and put you into a holding cell.
Mr. BLAIR: They took me to the-- right. They did that.
MARTIN: Did they ever ask you - did you ever ask why you were being detained? And what did they say?
Mr. BLAIR: I kept asking. When I got to the precinct, I said what about courtesy, professionalism and respect? Why am I being detained? I was told to shut up. I was told to be quiet, or else I would make it worse for myself. That's what they told me.
MARTIN: Well, how did the whole thing end?
Mr. BLAIR: The whole thing ended - I was hoping that they would have released me. You know, they were making - I mean, the cop looked at the thing, my ID, and said oh, he's not even from the projects. And I was there talking, and I...
MARTIN: He used that as an expression? He's not from the projects?
Mr. BLAIR: That is his exact words, and I repeated it to him. I said to him, because I'm black, that means I'm supposed to be from the projects? And he didn't answer. I did not want to say I am a reporter with the Post, or I have a master's degree from Columbia University because I personally felt that that should not have mattered. But it was not until Officer Reynolds - I asked him why am I being incarcerated?
And he turned to me - to show you how they looked at me - he asked me if I even knew what the word incarceration meant, and I unloaded right then. I said, listen. I have - and this is when I shouted - I said I have a master's degree from Columbia University, and I'm a reporter with the New York Post. What do you mean by this is not incarceration? And the entire tone, you could hear a pin drop.
And I turned to Officer Reynolds, and I said now I understand what black people in this country have to go through.
MARTIN: And what did he say?
Mr. BLAIR: He couldn't say a word.
MARTIN: So at that point, they let you go.
Mr. BLAIR: At that point.
MARTIN: At that point, they let you go. So, Stanley you lived in New York a long time.
Mr. CROUCH: Right.
MARTIN: And before that, you lived in Los Angeles...
Mr. CROUCH: Right.
MARTIN: ...and you've also been African-American your whole life...
Mr. CROUCH: ...just like Mr. Blair. Well, how do you - how does this all strike you?
Mr. CROUCH: Well, I mean, obviously, the guys got out of line. But let's see -the way I look at it is number one, the police are paranoid because there's an amount of illegal firearms in every major city. It's unprecedented. And there are people being shot down in the black community every day across this country. Now, does that mean that the police are supposed to do what they did? In this case, no. It seems to me (unintelligible) is there. What do we do - or what are the police to do to better protect the community?
Number two, the police are always least impressed by resume. You see, the question to me is how do you avoid getting a guy like this, who's obviously not a threat, not a criminal? How do you avoid stepping across the line with him, and at the same time deal with the people who are a threat to him?
MARTIN: Stanley, I've heard you talk about this and you've written about this, that there have been complaints about sort of police and heavy-headed tactics over the years. And your argument has been that far more people have been killed by, you know, street thugs than by the police, and that people need to keep that in mind. So do you think - do you still feel that way?
Mr. CROUCH: Oh, well, the numbers always tell you that. See, the thing is this: Throughout the years, what I have found is that the people in the community, the first thing they tell you if you ask them, how do you feel about the police? They hate the police.
If you're talking to them, then they get down to they hate the police who use excessive force. If you continue the conversation, if you stopped at anywhere along the way, you'll end up with one of those things they like to put on the news. You keep going, what they end up telling you is, one, they want excessive actions by police stopped, and two, they want more police because they always feel in danger.
You know, that's what I'm saying that the major dilemma is not stepping on the people who are innocent, but at the same time, being acutely aware of how to discern who these other guys are.
Mr. BLAIR: But what was the dilemma in my situation? The officers clearly had no fear at all. No fear. I was no threat. It was clear. They knew I wasn't a threat.
Mr. CROUCH: No, they didn't.
Mr. BLAIR: I was arrested for being smart. Officer Castillo may have been offended by the fact that I questioned, you know, why they were arresting me.
Mr. CROUCH: Oh, no. The first thing is, from your description of it, there's no excuse at all for what happened to you. That's not what I'm saying. You see, what I'm saying is if we - if that it we know, just a couple of nights ago, right across the street from Columbia University, a black guy was shot in the head by some knucklehead...
Mr. BLAIR: Yeah, sure, but in the absence of paranoia...
Mr. CROUCH: Well, no, no, no. Just let me finish what I'm saying.
Mr. BLAIR: Sure.
Mr. CROUCH: See, the fact of the matter is, the question is, how do - how does one enforce the law, avoid what happened to you, and at the same time, protect people from the kind of thing that happened to this guy in front of a bar over nothing?
MARTIN: Well, how do you feel about all this now that you've had a chance to think about it for a couple of days? And also, hearing what Mr. Crouch has had to say, which is that, you know, on the one hand, you initially said when you saw the police, you were relieved. You thought, yeah, great. They're patrolling the neighborhood. And now you feel clearly offended and treated with disrespect. So how do you feel now?
Mr. BLAIR: I will not, you know, make a blanket statement about the NYPD, because I work with officers every day on the job. And there are really some great officers in the NYPD. But there are few bad eggs like these two I met on the night of November 20th when I was going home. And I believe that these guys need to understand that they cannot just go around abusing people's rights for no reason. There was clearly no threat from me, and they knew it.
So the question what Mr. Crouch is saying, how do you balance this? How do you balance that? How do you deal with situations when there's clearly no paranoia? Not all officers are paranoid. These officers were clearly and out-rightly abusing my rights, and they were abusing their power to, you know, to protect me.
MARTIN: But don't you think you - I think what I hear you saying is that they were rude to you. But I have to ask you, don't you think you were rude to them?
Mr. BLAIR: You know, in hindsight, I look at the statement when I said, no, hablo ingles - you know, it's something that I would not have normally said to any officer. But the weight of the statement, the weight of the question, it was dehumanizing. These officers looked at me as if I was garbage. And you would never understand something like that until you are in that situation. It is a lived experience, and nobody can tell me what it is that I experienced until they have been in the situation themselves.
MARTIN: All right. Leonardo Blair is a reporter with the New York Post. He wrote about his experience with stop and frisk in Sunday's edition, and you can find a link to the article on our Web site if you want to read it in its entirety. Stanley Crouch also joined us. He's a writer and cultural critic.
Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CROUCH: Thanks for having me.