By Dr. Niaz Kasravi, Criminal Justice Director, NAACP
Many of us would like to believe that we live in a world where children could not be coerced into pleading guilty for a crime they did not commit. We would like to think that our criminal justice system would not allow for such a tragic miscarriage of justice. We would be wrong.
For 25 years, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Yesef Salaam waited for justice. In 1990, the men – all of African American or Latino descent — were forced into false confessions and convicted for the beating and rape of a young jogger in New York’s Central Park. Known as the “Central Park Five”, their case has remained in national headlines in one form another since. And among the many injustices highlighted by this tragedy, perhaps the most glaring is racial profiling and presumptions of criminality associated with people of color in America – especially young men of color.
The five youth were arrested and convicted at a time of heightened public fear, perceptions of lawlessness and widespread belief about a growing culture of ‘wild’ and violent gangs. Only after an imprisoned convicted felon confessed to the crime, an examination of DNA evidence was performed and the five men exonerated – after serving between seven to thirteen years behind bars.
Last week, a $40 million settlement was announced in the civil suit brought against the City of New York in 2003, making this a quintessential case of justice delayed. No amount of financial reciprocity can make up for what these young men truly lost. But the continued tragedy is that this could, and likely will, happen again due to a glaring lack of meaningful racial profiling laws in America.
Nowhere has the problem of racial profiling been most apparent than in the NYPD’s abuse of stop, question and frisk tactics. Implemented under the Bloomberg administration, the program reached its height in 2011 when officers stopped nearly 700,000 individuals – 90% of them people of color, and only 0.2% of the total stops lead to confiscation of weapons or illegal contraband.
In the last year however, advocates have achieved number of successes to help curb stop and frisk abuses: the City Council passed the Community Safety Act to reduce racial profiling and increase police accountability; a federal judge ruled stop and frisk as carried out by the NYPD unconstitutional; a first ever Inspector General was appointed to provide police oversight in New York; and a judge last week upheld a policy allowing residents to sue police officers for unlawful racially based stops.
These successes mark an important first step in the fight to end racial profiling in New York. But more is needed not only in New York, where other forms of over-aggressive policing and profiling appear on the rise, but also across the country, where a majority of states and localities lack meaningful and effective polices to prevent the kind of profiling and harassment seen in the Central Park Five case.
As we underscore the bittersweet ending to the Central Park Five civil suit, the NAACP will soon release a report highlighting this problem using the fight in New York as a platform to discuss the issue nationally. The report will include a state-by-state analysis of racial profiling laws revealing a lack of meaningful legislation in states across the country, as well as emphasizing the need for federal reform.
The recent tragedies of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis showed that racial profiling and presumptions of criminality are very much still a reality in Americans. And with no national ban on racial profiling, and a lack of truly effective state and local laws against the practice, law enforcement will be allowed to engage in unchecked racial profiling – as they did in New York – leading to injustices that delegitimizes the entirely of our criminal justice system. Good and effective laws against racial profiling will not only decreased the disproportionate number of people of color being funneled into the system, they will bring greater credibility and fairness to our broken system of justice.
Dr. Niaz Kasravi is the author of a forthcoming NAACP report on racial profiling. Follow her on Twitter @NiazKasravi.