During every heated controversy there is a moment when the tide turns against those standing at the gate to defend the status quo.
That moment came in New York recently when two things happened: the City lost its appeal against a lower court ruling that granted class action status to a suit challenging the intrusive stop and frisk tactics of cops on the beat and when the Council took up a package of bills designed to end the abuse of young people of color who are being stopped and frisk without cause.
Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the federal district court said in May that she was deeply disturbed by the City’s troubling apathy towards New Yorkers “most fundamental rights,” meaning their constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. What really got to the federal judge was the “cavalier” attitude of cops to Black and Hispanic youth as seen in their “suspicious-less" stops that are legally out of bounds. After Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley appealed the original decision, a higher federal court decided that the City had a case to answer and that the class action suit against racial profiling and unconstitutional searches should go forward. We are comforted by the Appeals court’s action because we have long held the view that the police tactics were unfair and illegal and must be resolved in court.
After the court’s decision Brooklyn City Council member Jumaane Williams gave the Mayor and the NYPD brass a piece of well-meaning advice: “(they) should end their resistance to changes to the stop and frisk policy.” Both should listen.
This thorny issue, which has riled New Yorkers for years, is at the heart of four bills now before the City Council. The measures are not seeking to abolish stop and frisk, a legitimate crime fighting tool, but to reform it by putting roadblocks into the paths of officers who are determined to abuse innocent people going about their legitimate business, such as walking home from school or work; going to the neighborhood playground or grocery store; picking up the newspaper; visiting friends and family; heading to a community event or attending church services. More than 80 per cent of the 600,000 stops made by cops involved Black and Hispanic victims. That number tells a damning story.
One bill would institute what’s being called “expressed” consent which would require cops to get an okay from people before they can be searched. Another would force officers to give persons being detained but not arrested the information they would need to file a complaint against their experience. Next is an attempt to end racial profiling by addressing the disparate impact of stop and frisk. But one of the most pressing demands is for the creation of an Inspector-General’s office in the Police Department. It would look into specific complaints, study potentially damaging trends, and raise alarms when they things are going awry.
The need for such an arm is clear. Several federal, state and local government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Central Intelligence Agency and the New York City Department of Education have such units which are doing an excellent job of oversight. The Bloomberg Administration has failed to offer a valid reason why it shouldn’t create an inspector-general’s unit. Both the Mayor and the Police Commissioner insist, without any justification we must add, that the proposed changes would handcuff the police in their crime fighting duties. We disagree. The abuses are too egregious to be allowed to continue and there is ample room for both sides of the issue to reach a reasonable compromise.
New Yorkers obviously share the view that police officers in the main are biased against Blacks and Hispanics. When asked recently about the attitude of cops, an overwhelming majority said that officers were prejudiced against people of color while favoring whites. There is little doubt in people’s minds that we have a lot of decent cops, who approach their jobs with an eye to fairness. They are in the majority and many of them come from the Caribbean. They must be allowed to carry out their duties without overbearing or heavy-handed interference. But what shouldn’t continue is the practice of stopping people, just because they happen to walking along the street late at night, early in the morning or in the early afternoon.
The Mayor must be aware that stop and frisk as a strategy has gotten out of hand and in the end would tarnish his reputation and legacy. Standing in the way reform is akin to being like the abusers blocking the gate to fairness.