If you want to make things work in a place like New York City, you have to be smart, and it probably helps to be stubborn and a little arrogant, too. Otherwise, the competing demands that emanate from countless quarters can result in chaos.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly deserve plenty of credit for driving the city’s crime rate down to multi-decade lows in recent years, and for maintaining and improving on that record, even after all of the easy gains have long since been made. They are smart and capable men – and also, judging from many of their public comments, at times prone to be arrogant and stubborn.
While these traits can be helpful in certain situations, they can also get in the way. The positive side is illustrated by the city’s latest crime news, while the negative is probably going to be aired sometime soon when a federal judge rules on the New York Police Department’s over-the-top program of stopping and frisking pedestrians.
Bloomberg and Kelly insist that the stop-and-frisks are an important component of New York’s anti-crime initiatives. They are too smart not to understand the significance of evidence of the contrary, or not to recognize that, even if their claims were true, crime-fighting does not justify a massive infringement of the rights of thousands of New Yorkers. So we have to assume that their apparent blindness flows from the stubborn and arrogant aspects of their personalities. They persist because they are sure they know better than their critics, and because it is their nature to insist on getting their way. Both men like being the boss.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin is expected to rule at almost any time on the stop-and-frisk program. A 10-week class-action trial, over which Scheindlin presided without a jury, ended in late May. According to The New York Daily News, some legal experts believe that, should Scheindlin find the procedure illegal, she may appoint an outside monitor to oversee the NYPD’s operations.
As I have written before, the stop-and-frisk program is deeply misguided at best. I am far from alone in this opinion. Last fall, the Bronx district attorney’s office took a stand by refusing to prosecute cases where an arrest resulted from stops in the borough’s housing projects, unless officers can justify, to an assistant D.A.’s satisfaction, that they had a legal basis for the initial stop.
The suit pending before Scheindlin included testimony from 12 plaintiffs who experienced some of the approximately 5 million stops the police have conducted in the past 10 years. Around 87 percent of those stops were of blacks or Latinos.
Defenders of the program, most prominently Kelly and Bloomberg, argue that the drop in crime in recent years is evidence that the stops are working. It is true that crime is down across the city. The New York Times recently reported that the city averaged less than a murder per day in the first half of 2013, which the newspaper described as “the first time the police can recall that happening for any sustained period.” There were 48 fewer homicides than in the same period in 2012. Shooting incidents, robbery and burglary, and misdemeanor-level assault are also all down from last year, according to the NYPD; major crimes taken as a whole are down nearly 34 percent compared to 12 years ago.
Yet just because crime has decreased does not mean that the stop-and-frisk program is the lone, or even primary, cause. Kelly himself said, “Stop-and-frisk, believe me, that is one aspect of what we do, we have a whole complex array of tactics and strategies that we use.” Kelly continues to justify the program as part of a larger anti-gang initiative; the theory is that past stops might convince criminals not to carry their weapons, even if current stops drop off. In the trial before Scheindlin, however, police officers testified that every stop had a clear, legitimate motivation; the stops are not supposed to simply serve as deterrents to future wrongdoing.
Further, the recent drop-off in the number of stops is itself part of why the continued defense of stop-and-frisk strains credulity. The proposition that the NYPD were running across nearly 700,000 suspicious situations annually until a sudden, sharp drop last year for no particular reason (apart from mounting complaints about the stops) is not credible.
That didn’t stop Bloomberg from claiming that math was on his side, however, in a controversial radio appearance last month. When discussing the critics of stop-and-frisk, Bloomberg was dismissive. “They just keep saying, ‘Oh, it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group,’ ” he said during an interview on WOR-AM. “That may be, but it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murder. In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”
The claim the NYPD stopped minorities too little was not only politically tin-eared; it also failed to reflect that about three quarters of the stops were over suspicions of nonviolent crimes, not violent crimes like homicide. Even had Bloomberg’s numbers been right, however, his logic is skewed. If stop-and-frisk deserved the bulk of the credit for the drop in crime, we’d expect to see crime rates climb when the stops were scaled back. So far, we have seen the opposite.
Once Bloomberg and Kelly get over their stubborn defensiveness about the excessive stopping and frisking of their fellow New Yorkers – something that will probably take a forceful ruling from Scheindlin – Kelly and his police can get back to doing what they actually do very well, which is making New York City a remarkably safe big city for all its residents, no matter what their race.