How Stop-and-Frisk Brings the Drug War Home

By Jeff Deeney 11/21/11

When the NYPD evicted Occupy Wall Street last week, it enforced a military-style lockdown and media blackout. But in heroin hot spots in poor urban neighborhoods, these drug-war tactics are the way we live now.

Anti-stop-and-frisk protesters at the Brooklyn Bridge on October 12. photo via

Last Tuesday, in the dead of night, the New York Police Department staged a surprise evacuation of Occupy Wall Street’s encampment in Zuccotti Park. Hundreds of policemen decked out in riot gear descended on the protestors using deafening LARD (long-range acoustic devices) noise cannons—the same high-tech “non-lethal weapons” used by the US military in Iraqi. They also deployed pepper spray, tear gas, and flash-bang grenades to subdue the encampment. A street-by-street lockdown of the financial district was enforced, followed by a media blackout, blocking reporters from covering the forced eviction of the OWS protesters. Of more than 250 people arrested Tuesday morning were seven reporters and photographers, including those from The New York Times, NBC, the AP, New York Daily News, Fox News and New York 1. In a press conference later in the day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the media were excluded from the scene “to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.”

Journalists were quick to condemn the lockdown and blackout of a major news event. Blogging for The New Yorker, journalist Philip Gourevitch wrote, “In a democracy, a mayor who believes he can shut down the press at will is not defending public safety; and a mayor who believes the police can be unleashed to manhandle the citizenry without answering for it cannot claim to be on the side of law or order.”

In fact, broad swaths of urban America live under similar “crackdown” conditions every day due to constitutionally slippery drug-war policies like stop-and-frisk, the controversial police practice of detaining, questioning and searching any person who is under “reasonable suspicion” of involvement in a crime. “Reasonable suspicion” is, of course, all in the mind of the cops on the beat, with all their prejudices and pressures. Once stopped, the person can be patted down if the police “suspects” they may be carrying a weapon; once frisked, the person can be arrested if the police find drugs or other illegal contraband in lieu of a weapon. In practice, stop-and-frisk allows the police to invade a person’s privacy in pursuit of any pretext to arrest them. Urban neighborhoods where drug trafficking is commonplace have some of the nation’s highest rates of stop-and-frisk, since even to set foot on (let alone live on) a block where a drug dealer operates is to come under “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity, according to the police.

Journalists and researchers who work in these neighborhoods can be subjected to the same arbitrary restrictions as reporters trying to cover major confrontations between police and protesters. Like the press during the media blackout of the OWS eviction, they can even suffer the same violence at the hands of law enforcement.

Still, few people other than active heroin addicts would find themselves touring Camden, New Jersey, the notorious town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia known, in 2009, as the country’s murder capital. Even fewer would spend a Sunday morning checking out the network of heroin corners on the city’s north side. At least, that’s the assumption the Camden Police Department operates from when stopping drivers and pedestrians in the neighborhood, questioning, often frisking and continuously threatening them with arrest. It’s hard to argue with the department’s reasoning, which is probably at least more often than not true.

Camden was forced to lay off half of its police force this year due to budget shortfalls, unleashing what is reportedly a state of sustained chaos. On the surface it certainly looks like a place to avoid. North Camden consists of a tight grid of tiny row houses, many in a state of total collapse. Whole clusters of buildings that burned down long ago and were never demolished or repaired now barely remain standing as charred shells. Of those homes that haven’t burned, scores are boarded over with plywood stenciled “Department of Public Works” in black paint on their front doors. Interspersed among the ruins are vacant lots littered with garbage, broken glass, dirty needles, used condoms—the standard detritus of high drug-and-crime neighborhoods where the public sector has more or less stopped performing basic functions other than nailing boards over broken shooting-gallery windows.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.