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Corinne Ramey

Riding the Subway While Black or Hispanic

Recently I've been reading The Devil's Highway, a book by journalist Luis Alberto Urrea about the stories and politics of crossing the border between Arizona and Mexico. In one chapter, Urrea writes that the Arizona police and border patrol have an acronym for crashes of vehicles driven by the Mexican "coyotes" : DWM, or Driving While Mexican. After reading a recent Daily News investigation, I've begun to think that maybe New York police need their own acronym for the proliferation of recent subway arrests: RSWBH.

So it's a bad, horribly uncatchy acronym, meant to stand for Riding the Subway While Black or Hispanic. But according to the investigation, subway riders who are black or Hispanic are far more likely to get stopped and questioned by New York Police Department.

The study found that 90% of citizens stopped and questioned (bag searches don't count) in the subways were either black or Hispanic, despite the fact that blacks and Hispanics make up only 49% of subway riders overall. Non-Hispanic whites made up only 7.9% of subway riders stopped over the two year period, according to the Daily News. The study found that the racial disparity was the largest in white neighborhoods such as Wall Street, SoHo, Tribeca, and Midtown. An interactive map with data on the racial breakdown of citizens stopped in the subway in different areas is available here.

One might logically conclude that police are upping the number of subway rider stops based on rising crime rates. However, this doesn't seem to be the case. The Daily News reports,

"Unlike in the rest of the city, the NYPD's practice of stopping subway riders grew dramatically through last year - even as the crime rate has plummeted. Since 2004, the number of subway riders stopped by police increased nearly 10-fold from 2,769 to 27,077 and continued to hold steady last year. (Bag searches are not considered stops). This occurred as the crime rate in the subway continued its drop. The average number of crimes per day in the subways fell from nine to six, while grand larcenies - the most common crime underground - slipped from 1,910 to 1,346."

In Manhattan the increase was most pronounced. In Transit District 01, which comprises the area west of Central Park and down to 42nd Street, the number of stops increased 26.3% since 2006.

Legal experts interviewed by the Daily News questioned the practices of increasing stops of subway riders. "The million dollar question is, if the city is safe with half this enforcement, why are we doing more enforcement?" said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD cop and prosecutor. "If the subways are safe with "X" level of enforcement, then why go with enforcement that goes beyond that?" Chris Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, suggested that the practice of entering the names of anyone stopped into a database further aggravated resentment towards the practice. The study "confirms what many of us have been saying - that race is the reason many people are stopped," Dunn said.

Unfortunately, the subway isn't the only place where racial profiling by New York law enforcement takes place. According to data released by the NYPD and analyzed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, 86.4% of those stopped and frisked by the NYPD were black or Latino. Stops of whites made up only 2.6% of the white population, whereas stops of blacks made up 21.1% of the black population. Marijuana arrests show a similar pattern. Despite the fact that a higher percentage of white people use marijuana than blacks or Hispanics, 85% of the people arrested for marijuana by the NYPD are either black or Hispanic.

All of us -- white, black, Latino, or otherwise -- want our subways to be safe. However, the data from the Daily News investigation raises troubling questions about the means and efficacy of the tactics used by the NYPD to get there. Riding the subway while black or Hispanic should never be a crime.

Corinne Ramey: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 6:55 AM, Feb 20, 2008 in New York | Racial Justice | Transportation
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