An Analysis By Michael D. Roberts
Everyone is up in arms over the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy. People are mad at Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s obstinacy and refusal to change the way that it’s being done. All valid reasons. Sad thing is that the rhetoric on both sides of the debate has gone way beyond the pole of civility and reason and its all now a game of political brinkmanship to see who will blink first. Out with reason and compromise; in with rhetoric and bombast. Let’s score cheap political shots and made-for-TV sound bites.
Many political leaders, especially Democrats, see the Stop and Frisk policy as a good thing gone rotten due to the excesses of over-zealous NYPD street cops and the alacrity that they have displayed in stopping mostly Black and Latino males. This is a valid point. This weekend thousands of people protested in New York City calling for the policy to be scrapped. The cops, they say, are running amok and stopping and frisking Black and Latino males for no reason at all.
But stop and frisk has been an effective tool for police since the 1968 case Terry v. Ohio, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of it. The court agreed with the police that officers face uncertain and dangerous situations on the streets—circumstances that can potentially threaten both law enforcement officers and the public. For this reason, police officers need a set of flexible responses that allow them to react based on the information they possess. Thus, distinctions should be made between a stop and an arrest (or seizure of a person), and between a frisk and a search.
Under the Terry ruling, a police officer may stop and detain a person based on reasonable suspicion. And, if the police reasonably suspect the person is armed and dangerous, they may also frisk him or her for weapons.
And as with anything that smells of human rights violations in this liberal of American cities it elicits a barrage of emotions and the further hardening of positions bolstered by statistics, data and historical evidence. So on the Bloomberg/Kelly side of things they point out that crime is down, especially murders, and that the Stop and Frisk program has worked. It would be foolish to throw out the program they say.
On the other “people/public side” comes the cry that the program is discriminatory and has gotten out of hand. Commissioner Kelly’s refusal to rein it in has resulted in police behavior that border on civil rights violations. Both Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg dismiss critics as howling wolf when none is present and say that they are winning the “war on crime” pointing out the fact that crime in New York City is at an all-time low. Again a valid set of arguments.
But is winning the “war on crime” (we are in so many “wars” now it ain’t funny) all that it’s cracked up to be? Sure the NYPD and the mayor can trot out statistics after statistics until they are blue in the face, pardon the blue reference, and that will do jack to win the hearts and minds of liberal New Yorkers outraged by THEIR statistics.
And is the lowering of crime and the ramping up of more stops and frisks justified to bolster bragging rights that “we’re tough on crime” and “strong on law and order?” Even though Mayor Bloomberg, who has kind of gone off the deep end recently with his Nanny Agenda, and his servile police commissioner are both salivating over the statistics they do so at the expense of excluding everything else.
That’s flawed reasoning and misplaced hubris. Commissioner Kelly’s police officers have stopped and questioned, and often frisked, an ever-growing number of New Yorkers – the vast majority young African-American and Latino men. The increase in street stops has been steady, fast and vast: 600 percent from 2002 to 2011. So the drop in crime is great but at the expense of traumatizing thousands of young people the vast majority of whom have committed absolutely no crime?
Infact, this decrease in crime has created through the Stop and Frisk policy a deliberate pogrom of racial profiling, targeting, stereotyping and discrimination based solely on race and ethnicity. For the NYPD and the Bloomberg Administration this has spawned a conundrum – crime is down but people, especially Black and Latino people, are now angry and suspicious of the very people who are supposed to protect and serve them. A 600 percent increase in stop and frisks is not the kind of thing that endears people to the “boys in blue.”
The truth is there must be a better way to do this. In principle, I support the Stop and Frisk program as a tool in crime prevention. I believe that done right no New Yorker will have a problem with it. And fair is fair. Black and Latino people account for 54 percent of New York City’s 8.25 million people but account for 90 percent of stops and frisks. Consequently, Blacks and Latinos make up 90 percent of both murderers and victims.
The reality is this: Blacks and Latinos will always be disproportionately stopped and frisked given the above statistics that clearly point to the fact that these communities are seriously challenged by crime, especially gun violence. So that the stop and frisk program is an important tool even if it gets just one illegal handgun off the streets that has about “six bodies registered on it.”
But there has to be a balance and better methodology because of the potential, borne out by the NYPD’s own statistics, for abuse. I would prefer to see a more pro-active approach to community policing and stronger partnerships between local precincts, the faith-based community, local elected officials, civic associations and businesses that will create an involved organized, “all hands on deck” approach to fighting crime.
Such a coalition will enhance the stop and frisk program and assist the NYPD in policing our neighborhoods. As it stands now the NYPD is alienated from the very communities that it is supposed to serve and protect because of its overly aggressive approach and a mindset that any and every Black or Latino male is a potential criminal. With the misuse and abuse of the Stop and Frisk program the NYPD now views every Black and Latino male as prime subjects to boost arrest records.
That’s sad because a very effective program might be scrapped because people on both sides of the debate are now locked in a battle royale to get their way and are now oblivious to the fact that compromise and dialogue are far better than overblown rhetoric.