Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fearing Stopping Stop-and-Frisk

Fear can be a good motivator.

It can be a good mechanism for control.

For years, New York City was a city of fear, as rampant crime controlled virtually everything people did.  What time they left their homes, what time they returned, what they wore, where they sat on public transit, and even which newspaper they read in which neighborhood.

In 1994, Rudy Giuliani became the city's first Republican mayor since 1969 by promising to reduce crime and, by extension, the fear New Yorkers had of their own city.  Under his leadership, some no-nonsense policing under a new program using the controversial "broken windows theory" started attacking crime in its basic forms, like petty vandalism and other antisocial behaviors cops otherwise wouldn't have been allowed the time to investigate.  And you know what?  Crime actually began to go down, and the difference in daily life for the city's residents was palpable.  Giuliani and his police chief, William Bratton, who pioneered the broken windows theory in an intense urban environment, couldn't help but exclaim how rigorous, incessant pressure on people committing what New Yorkers had grown accustomed to calling "petty" crimes achieved measurable results.

It was such a watershed moment in law enforcement and criminological theory that Michael Bloomberg, Giuliani's successor, empowered New York's fabled "finest" with another controversial tool that broadened the scope of broken windows to make sure it wasn't a fluke.

Bloomberg's initiative became known as "stop-and-frisk," and yesterday, after more than ten years of what exploded into a divisive crisis of confidence between the city's residents and its leadership, federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that it violated both the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution.

And Bloomberg is hopping mad.  During a press conference after yesterday's ruling against stop-and-frisk, Hizzoner said the city would appeal Scheindlin's decision, portraying it as a potential kicking of New Yorkers back into the dark days when they continuously feared for their safety.

Stop-and-frisk is a policy whereby the police have wide latitude in stopping people they suspect of being criminals and just checking to make sure they're not.  W-i-d-e latitude.  In 2011 alone, over 680,000 stop-and-frisk actions were logged in a city of over eight million people.  Cops can stop anybody they please, frisk them, ask them personal questions, and even suggest crimes in which the person they've stopped might have been complicit.  All without a warrant, or a reading of a suspect's Miranda rights. 

If it wasn't New York City, a police department's unrestricted ability to detain passersby without probable cause would sound capricious, or lawless.  But the police say they do have probable cause - a person's race.  Overwhelmingly, the number of people who've been subjected to stop-and-frisk have been blacks or Hispanics.  And male.  And mostly young.

Again, in any other city, being able to stop-and-frisk young minority males by the hundreds of thousands would elicit howls of discrimination and racial profiling.  But New York's finest say that since most crimes in the city are committed by young minority males, that's sufficient justification for targeting the demographic.

Yesterday, Scheindlin reminded Bloomberg, who, during his three terms as the city's swaggering, pugnacious mayor, has vehemently defended stop-and-frisk, that the United States Constitution outweighs criminal justice theory.  Even though the mayor wanted the courts to consider Gotham's remarkably low crime rate as proof that stop-and-frisk works by intimidating the demographic most responsible for the city's crime, Scheindlin says that's not the court's ultimate job.  People have a right to walk on public streets, use public transportation, and drive personal vehicles without fear of being pegged a villain as long as they follow the laws in doing so, and regardless of their age, ethnicity, or gender.

Now, the basic purpose of stop-and-frisk actually isn't up for debate here.  As part of her ruling, Scheindlin is appointing a federal monitor to oversee the city's wind-down of the practice.  It's not being fully stopped cold-turkey, and indeed, it's not likely that stop-and-frisk will entirely disappear anytime soon.  The reason is that, from the origins of the practice back in English Common Law, meeting a standard of reasonable suspicion can make what we now call stop-and-frisk a useful law enforcement tool.  Plus, according to the Supreme Court case allowing the practice in the United States, Terry v. Ohio, police need to meet definite terms regarding suspects for which they're looking, instead of simply stopping people on the street without a warrant.  According to the federal verdict, the NYPD has been abusing this key safeguard of reasonable suspicion.

For example, police need to know that a specific crime has just been committed, or they need to have received credible advance warning of a planned crime.  New York's version of stop-and-frisk, on the other hand, had degenerated into cops simply cruising the streets, looking for people to badger, instead of getting a 911 call of a robbery, and a corresponding description of the suspect.  And the description of the suspect has to be more than "young minority male."

After all, how many times do you think New York's finest goes out and does stop-and-frisk on every middle-aged white male they can find whenever there's a mob hit?

And Bloomberg still denies stop-and-frisk has become a rogue form of racial profiling. 

After the verdict, he tried to play on the emotions of New Yorkers who remember the bloody years of terror on the city's streets only a couple of decades ago, before stop-and-frisk became one of the NYPD's tools for - ostensibly - suffocating the crime out of assumed thugs with nothing better to do.

"I'd like to see you go to the funeral and explain to the family why their son or husband or father is not coming home," he blasted at his critics, equating Scheindlin's ruling to a declaration of anarchy and a return to fear.

Problem was, Mr. Mayor, it was the police who, by many accounts, were acting with an impunity reminiscent of an anarchist state.  Under stop-and-frisk, maybe New Yorkers who didn't have dark skin, weren't young or male, or who didn't live in crime-prone neighborhoods could enjoy life without fearing for their safety.  But many innocent dark-skinned men were needlessly targeted, harassed, belittled, delayed, humiliated, and scorned by police officers who were supposed to be protecting them.  Plenty of New Yorkers who shouldn't have been afraid to walk the streets for fear of crime became fearful of the NYPD.  The fear that became emblematic of the Big Apple didn't ever go away; it just faded with the whiter color of some people's skin.

Isn't that something to fear, too?

From the way Bloomberg is protesting Scheindlin's verdict, it seems like he's convinced that intimidation and violating a person's Constitutional rights are the best tools the police have to fight crime.

If that's true, then what do all of those low crime statistics really mean?


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