Morningside Heights was scandalized to learn that Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker was accused of shoplifting and stopped-and-frisked by a Milano Market employee last Friday. Witnesses accused a Milano employee of racially profiling the celebrity. Milano’s owners later denied the accusation of profiling, but they have since fired the employee.
An illegal search involving an African-American celebrity at a shop adjacent to an Ivy League university—this episode is easily sensationalized. Yet, we should reflect upon one of the most troubling components: the stop-and-frisk tactic. While its use by the Milano employee against Whitaker was unquestionably illegal, stop-and-frisk is an institutional mainstay of the New York Police Department in its anti-crime efforts across New York City. This policy routinely allows police officers to stop individuals with only nominally reasonable suspicion and then question and search them. While public outcry has been strong, we have yet to see institutional reform.
As responsible citizens, we cannot allow a double standard to exist between the treatment of celebrities and the treatment of ordinary citizens being stopped-and-frisked for indiscriminate factors such as race, gender, or geographic location. The stop-and-frisk policy is just as offensive when it’s exercised on an ordinary New York City resident as when it’s executed on a celebrity. Both NYPD officers and Milano employees—the latter without the legal authority to engage in stop-and-frisk in the first place—have a responsibility to respect an individual’s personal space and personal integrity.
There are signs that progress is being made, with Bronx Judge Shira A. Scheindlin deeming the policy unconstitutional in January 2013. We should channel our indignation with the Milano employee toward public policy and work to accelerate stop-and-frisk reform in New York City. We hope to see both institutionalized and incidental racial profiling minimized, and to see police show a greater adherence to the Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Despite the media uproar from the Forest Whitaker story, many Columbia students appear unfazed. Earlier this semester, patrons flocked back to Absolute Bagels and M2M after the city’s health department closed them due to numerous health violations. Convenience, routine, and a lack of alternatives will inevitably keep Milano thriving post-controversy, just as they did for its neighbors on Broadway. However, health violations and incidents involving illegal and discriminatory search and seizures clearly are not the same. Recognizing the many complicated factors characterizing the scandal—including the consideration that the stop-and-frisk was performed by an individual employee and not condoned by Milano—we urge students to consider the greater ethical questions raised by the situation, in their capacities as both Milano patrons and responsible citizens.
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