Shawn Gonzalez was on his way home when he was stopped. As he made his way above ground from a subway station in Harlem, two police officers approached him.
“What’s the issue?” asked Gonzalez, then 16. The officers said they suspected that he was carrying drugs. He wasn’t.
Finally, after 10 minutes of questioning, they let Gonzalez go.
That was two years ago. Gonzalez, now 18, was one of more than 100 middle school and high school students at a forum Thursday night who shared encounters with police and suggestions to reform New York City’s controversial stop-question-and frisk policy, a practice where officers question and sometimes search pedestrians for drugs or weapons. At the event, which was organized by The Joint Remedial Process, the District 6 Community Education Council and the Police Athletic League (PAL), students proposed solutions to ease relations between police and teenagers.
“Young people have a lot of beef with the police,” said Al Kurland, a compliance manager at PAL, a program that partners with the police to provide activities for kids. “But they want to solve the problem.”
In 2013, a Manhattan federal court judge ruled the New York City police’s use of stop-question-and-frisk unconstitutional. The court outlined measures for the police department, including changes in how officers are trained, and mandating a pilot program for officers to wear body cameras. The court also appointed an independent agency, the Joint Remedial Process, to oversee reform of stop-question-and frisk, assess progress on the police’s implementation of these reforms and report back to the court twice a year.
Police still use the tactic, but less frequently than in the past. In the first few months of 2016, police reported 7,636 incidents of stop-question-and-frisk, the lowest amount since 2004, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. About 6,000 of those stopped were innocent.
At the forum, students agreed the policy was problematic because many people who are stopped are not breaking any laws. That breeds fear in neighborhoods like Washington Heights.
“You don’t want the community scared of the police,” said Melannie Estrella, 14, a student at the George Washington High School for Health Careers and Sciences in Washington Heights. “You want them to work with the police.”
At a gymnasium inside PAL’s Armory Building in Washington Heights, students gathered around small tables with jumbo-sized notepads propped up on easels. As they discussed and debated ideas about reforming stop-question-and-frisk, facilitators listened and took notes, offering no opinions of their own. All adults, include parents, were sidelined at the forum. Organizers want to hear from the students, reaching out to those between ages 13 and 25.
“They have the ideas for innovation,” said Fe Florimon, president of the District 6 Community Education Council.
Students presented a variety of proposals, ranging from asking police to “just leave them alone” to pleas for cops to better communicate with community members.
Gonzalez, a senior at the George Washington School in Washington Heights, said stop-question-and-frisk should not be reformed; it should be eliminated because of how many minorities are approached by police.
About 53 percent of those stopped in the first half of 2016 were black, according to data reported to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Thirty percent were Latino.
“There is no solution to fix this,” said Gonzalez, who is Puerto Rican. “I would urge everyone to fight against it.”
Information from the forum and several others held across New York City will be compiled into a report for New York’s federal court in early 2017, according to Ariel Belen, a former New York Supreme Court justice who serves as a facilitator to the Joint Remedial Process.
“There is a large gap between the NYPD and minority communities,” Belen said.
Gonzalez said he would like to see a bridge built between that gap soon.
“If the police stop me, they better have a reason,” he said.