An Open Letter To Kal Penn On Stop And Frisk

"The Time Machine" PremiereBy Guest Contributor Bridget Todd

Dear Kalpen Suresh Modi,

I’ve been a big fan of yours for some time.

Even though I don’t know you, you always struck me as someone who was thoughtful about race.

When I heard your stage name Kal Penn really came from your wanting to see if white casting directors would be more responsive to “Kal” than to “Kalpeen,” I found it was so hilariously insightful that I couldn’t help but become a fan.

For whatever reason, I assumed you and I were similar. But on Tuesday when you tweeted that you were supportive of Stop and Frisk, I knew we weren’t as similar as I once assumed.

We had a brief back and forth about the policy on twitter, and while I appreciated you taking the time to share your thoughts, 140 characters isn’t enough space to adequately tell you misinformed you really are on Stop and Frisk.

When writer Chris Williams pointed out to you that Stop and Frisk allows black and brown men to be routinely hassled by law enforcement, you responded that “the stats don’t lie” when it comes to who is committing violent crime in New York City. Meaning that you believe that since it is black and brown folks committing the violent crime, they should be being stopped, searched, and questioned.  I have to ask, have you read those stats? Because they indicate that it is white men, not black or Latino men, who are more likely to be carrying a weapon when stopped and frisked. Yet,  black and brown men are much more likely to be stopped and frisked than their white counterparts.

In fact, according to the NYPD’s own reports, nearly 9 out 10 people who are stopped and frisked were not guilty of any crime whatsoever.

Furthermore, the kinds of crimes Stop and Frisk has been shown to be unequivocally  effective at preventing have been low level marijuana infractions, not gun crimes. Are those really the kinds of criminals you feel safer knowing  are off the streets and fed in the prison industrial complex? Does that particular truth about Stop and Frisk feel like a small price to pay for the illusion of safety?

You said yourself, “the stats don’t lie.” So what is your explanation for these statistics that seem to paint a portrait of Stop and Frisk as (at best) not effective and (at worst) racially motivated?

When Williams said he hoped you’d one day become a victim of Stop and Frisk, you replied that you’d already been a victim of violent crime. I’m assuming you meant your mugging at gunpoint in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood back in 2010.

This, unfortunately, is something else we have in common: we have both been on the receiving end of crime in DC. A few years ago, I was also held up at gunpoint in DC’s Petworth neighborhood. I don’t need to tell you it was one of the more frightening moments of my life. I don’t need to tell you that I thought my entire life might have ended in spark of gunfire over a cheap J.Crew wallet and a smartphone. I don’t need to tell you that the moment left me feeling powerless. I don’t need to tell you any of this because already know it all first hand. Those feelings were very real, but fear and powerlessness should not drive our public policy.

In fact, studies show that the kind of powerlessness and fear on the part of those who are routinely stopped and frisked may actually worsen criminal activity by forcing these communities to view law enforcement with suspicion. As Dylan Matthews points out at the Washington Post, “stop and frisk is, at best, ineffective, and, at worst, actively alienates communities with whom the police need to engage.”

Stop and Frisk creates a generation of young people who feel their very presence in public is suspicious and criminalized. If anything, this should make you feel less safe overall, not more safe. In your last (now deleted) tweet to me on Stop and Frisk, you said we “need to uplift our urban communities.” I posit that Stop and Frisk is simply not an effective way to do it.


Bridget Todd

Bridget Todd is a writer, activist, and political organizer living in Washington DC. She teaches at Howard University.  Her writing has appeared at the Atlantic, the Huffington Post, Jezebel, DCentric, and Racialicious. She writes about intersections of race, politics, and culture. 

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