Erik Henderson, 42, stepped onto the quiet December sidewalk, orange juice in hand, the reggae music he had been listening to earlier that morning playing in his head. He waved goodbye to the man behind the deli counter and told him he’d see him tomorrow.
Henderson opened the juice and took a swig. As he did, a shout jolted him out of the stillness of the morning.
“Stop where you are!”
Henderson turned to find two men crouching behind the hood of a car. Their guns were drawn and pointing straight at him.
“Police! Don’t move!” shouted one.
“Put your hands in the air!” shouted the other.
Henderson raised his arms slowly, the juice bottle in his left hand. They approached, crouching and scanning with caution. Henderson obeyed their orders as they held him against a parked car, checked his pockets, patted him down and removed his shoes. When he asked them why they’d stopped him, they replied that he fit the description of a man they suspected of dealing drugs in the area.
“Mid forties, medium build, black man with dreadlocks” scoffed Henderson. “Like everyone else who lives in Bed-Stuy.” He wasn’t scared, though. “It’s almost routine,” he said. “I get stopped about twice a month by the NYPD. I’ve come to expect it.”
The stop was one of more than 500,000 that have taken place in New York City since this time last year. They’re part of the New York Police Department’s controversial “stop, question and frisk” policy, aimed at reducing the number of guns on the streets. It encourages officers to pull aside any member of the public they suspect may be involved in criminal activity.
Hear the stories of four Brooklyn residents stopped by the police
The stop would have played out as usual for Henderson — questions about drugs, then a frisk, with the police finding nothing and sending him on his way — but this time there was a catch.
When the officers put Henderson’s name through the system, alarm bells sounded. It showed he had an outstanding warrant out against him, stemming from the time a month or so earlier when he had allegedly carried an open container of alcohol in public. (“I don’t even drink,” said Henderson. “Just like the day they stopped me, I had orange juice in my orange juice bottle.” The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment on the basis for the summons.)
Henderson had turned his bad luck into worse, by failing to turn up for his court date on the summons. The open-container summons therefore turned into a warrant for arrest.
By law, because Henderson had an outstanding warrant, the officers were required to cuff and detain him. A warrant could have been for a minor misdemeanor like spitting or littering, or a more significant crime like burglary, or murder — the police who stopped Henderson had no way to know the specifics. The officers took Henderson into custody and held him overnight.
Henderson didn’t want to go through that again. The day we met him, Henderson was among some 400 people trying to resolve their warrants at Mount Sion Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, during an event called Project Safe Surrender. Henderson was trying to sort out yet another open-container summons.
The project, now in its third year, is an annual moment of cooperation between local Brooklyn churches and the NYPD, with the support of the state courts and the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. Its organizers seek to resolve summonses for nonviolent misdemeanors or violations.
Brooklyn residents get summonses dismissed at Project Safe Surrender
At any one time, Brooklyn residents have at least 250,000 outstanding summonses, many of which eventually turn, like Henderson’s, into arrest warrants. Under the NYPD stop, question and frisk policy, police from Brooklyn’s 79th and 81st precincts, which cover Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the area’s unit assigned to area New York City Housing Authority developments have stopped, questioned and frisked 12,055 people in the first nine months of 2011. Stops are conducted at police officers’ discretion based on “reasonable suspicion” an individual is engaged in criminal activity. The most common reasons given are “furtive movements,” “casing a victim,” and “fitting a relevant description.”
Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, who founded Project Safe Surrender, says widespread summonses for quality-of-life offenses combined with intensive use of stop-question-and-frisk by police add up to an intolerable situation for many who come to Mount Sion for help.
“You get pulled up for a stop-and-frisk and you’ve got a warrant out for spitting in the street, all of a sudden you’re ingested into the criminal justice system.” he said. “A lot of people are walking around with that sword of Damocles hanging over their head.” Youngblood said Project Safe Surrender eliminates that pressure.
Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, who attended the Safe Surrender event, warned that stop-and-frisk must be implemented with care. “Stop and frisk can be an effective legal tool,” he said. “But it has to be stop and if you suspect something then frisk… it’s not stop/frisk.”
DA Charles Hynes and Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood on the consequences for Brooklyn
James Brodick, Project Director of the Brownsville Community Justice Center, says he is concerned about the ongoing effect of apparently constant stops on people like Erik Henderson. He fears they’re wearing a lot of residents down. “They get a warrant for a minor offense, they don’t want to take care of it because they’re scared of going downtown,” he said. “Then they’re pulled up on a stop-and-frisk, and all of a sudden it’s spiraling out of control.”
Said Youngblood: “It’s got to stop somewhere. We need a circuit breaker. And what better place than here?”