Time to stop and think on stop-and-frisk

It should be said that Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin is being vilified for her ruling that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program is unconstitutional. 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg swiftly charged that the judge had denied the city a fair trial and said he would make this accusation in the appeal. He and other critics have practically accused the judge of murder, saying her ruling could lead to increased violent crime.

At a news conference, he returned to the defense the city has used throughout: that the stop-and-frisk program reduced crime. Under this policy, police made 4.4 million stops over an eight-year period, more than 80 percent involving black and Hispanic people. (In 2.3 million of these cases, police frisked the individual.)  The mayor complained that the judge never mentioned in her ruling how much crime rates have dropped during his years in office.

The Daily News hyped this theme with a front page headlined “MURDER, SHE WROTE - Fear over Return to Bloody Old Bad Days,” with pictures of the judge and of a corpse being covered at a crime scene.

The mayor’s problem is that his effective public-relations strategy – using plunging crime rates to justify whatever the NYPD is doing – doesn’t work in court. As the judge wrote, the issue is whether stop-and-frisk is constitutional, not whether it is effective. Coercing confessions may be effective, she noted, but it’s illegal.

When it comes to PR, the mayor and his police commissioner are on strong ground. They have big PR staffs and ready access to the media. The judge doesn’t.

When it comes to the law, though, tthe city officials are on much weaker ground. The Fourth Amendment requires that stops be based on reasonable suspicion. The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids race-based suspicion.

Sheindlin’s incisive opinion lays out a detailed case that stop-and-frisk is riddled with race-based suspicion.  

In her decision, the judge gave great weight to the testimony of three police officers who were so fed up with the situation that they secretly recorded roll calls. The tapes reveal how mid-level police supervisors are pushed by their bosses to achieve a sufficient number of stops, no matter what.

Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, a key whistleblower whose story is told in a newly released book, recorded one roll call in which a sergeant urged the cops to make more stops so the precinct can come up with the expected number. It  requires filling out a Form UF-250. The judge quotes this in her ruling:

250, how hard is a 250. I’m not saying make it up but you can always articulate robbery, burglary, whatever the case may be. That’s paperwork … It’s still a number. It keeps the hounds off, I’ve been saying that for months.

Is the alternative to this type of policing total chaos? That is what Bloomberg wants the public to think. But the lawsuit did not ask for stop-and-frisk to be eliminated, nor does the judge suggest that. It just needs to be conducted within the bounds set by the Constitution, however inconvenient that might be.

To that end, the NYPD would do well to return to a more community-oriented policing it practiced in the early 1990s, when crime first began to drop. Officers with a good sense of the neighborhood will make better stops.

Stop-and-frisk was initiated around 1994 by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton as part of a strategy to get guns off the streets. Bratton, who took office with Mayor  Rudy Giuliani, scoffed at community policing as "social work." But since it had been in effect for a few years, the cops in the precincts knew their communities. That, combined with Bratton's innovations, made for some very good policing.

Later, the NYPD shifted to using task forces that flooded high-crime neighborhoods, a strategy aimed at reducing crime numbers. Police brass got the numbers they wanted, but at a high cost to police-community relations. Then they vastly increased stop-and-frisk during the Bloomberg administration, further alienating police and communities.

I don't think cops on the beat like this any more than the people in the communities they patrol do. Judge Scheindlin was right to appoint a monitor - not for the officers on patrol, but for the policymakers who push them into conducting unwarranted searches.




Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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