Walking while black (or otherwise non-Caucasian) in New York City is likely to be less stressful now that a federal judge has punched a hole in the city’s stop-and-frisk police dragnet. The big question is whether it is likely to be less safe.
On that score, I doubt yesterday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin is going to create much change at all.
To the surprise of nobody who isn’t named Bloomberg, Scheindlin found that the city’s massive program of stopping and searching pedestrians - the vast majority of whom are nonwhite and who are not found to be breaking any law - violates citizens’ rights under the Constitution’s Fourth and Fourteenth amendments. The Fourth protects against unreasonable search and seizure; the Fourteenth guarantees due process.
New York police made more than a half-million stops last year. Even that number, though it averages to more than 1,400 stops each and every day, was down sharply from years before the stop-and-frisk frenzy began drawing intense scrutiny. The New York Daily News reported that last year’s 532,000 stops yielded just over 32,000 arrests (mostly for minor offenses such as possessing small quantities of marijuana) and recovered 6,436 weapons. Nearly 90 percent of those who were stopped while going about their business were simply let go.
The Supreme Court has ruled that such stops are legal if the police have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person being stopped is involved in a crime. New York police officials insist that in all but isolated instances, their officers have such suspicions, and that the stops are not based on racial profiling. But during the trial last spring, the judge expressed strong skepticism. “You reasonably suspect something and you’re wrong 90 percent of the time,” the judge dryly observed.
Scheindlin did not ban or directly limit the stop-and-frisk tactic, a move that would have been beyond her powers under the Supreme Court’s precedents. But she appointed an outside attorney, Peter Zimroth, to monitor police procedures and to propose reforms that the judge can impose by court order.
Scheindlin found that the city has practiced “deliberate indifference” to unconstitutional police behavior. “Moreover, while the NYPD is an acknowledged leader in the use of data collection and analysis to improve the effectiveness of policing, it has hindered the collection of accurate data concerning the constitutionality of its stops, and made no effective use of the limited data that is available.”
Police officials argued that their policy is to target “the right people” based on crime suspect data. Since most of the city’s crime reports describe the suspects as nonwhite, most stops focus on nonwhite individuals, officials testified. Apart from the fact that most of the people being stopped turn out not to be wanted for, or guilty of, anything at all, Scheindlin observed that even if the crime suspect data were accurate, it would not justify wholesale stops of nonwhite pedestrians.
Innocent people have a right to walk the streets without being stopped and searched because of their skin color. As I have written previously, I can walk from one end of New York City to the other without ever being bothered, simply because I am a middle-aged white man. If I were a 20-year-old African-American, the odds that I could hike from Riverdale to Coney Island without being stopped would not be in my favor.
City officials have sought to portray Scheindlin, a former prosecutor herself, as a soft-on-crime judge who is going to inflict more damage on minority neighborhoods by hindering the city’s efforts to keep the streets safe. By that logic, a total ban on venturing outside, or at least a dusk-to-dawn curfew, might drive crime statistics down even further, and thus do those neighborhoods a favor.
The stop-and-frisk program is a stain on what otherwise might be the best urban police force in the country. New York today is a safe city, far safer than the version in which I grew up in the 1970s. The neighborhoods that have benefited most are those where most of the city’s nonwhite population lives. The police should be seen as a positive force in those places. Instead, largely due to the stop-and-frisk orgy, many residents of those neighborhoods understandably resent the visible police presence on their blocks.
Each needless police stop also carries the risk of something going tragically wrong. Last week I wrote about the case of Oscar Grant III, whose shooting by a transit police officer in California is the basis of the film “Fruitvale Station.” My commentary drew an emotional response from Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson.
“Johannes Mehserle [the officer who shot Grant] had four police brutality complaints against him in his 2.5 years as a BART officer, all against young Black men,” Johnson wrote to me. “We need to look at his history before we give the impression that this was a mistake. The Peace Officer Bill of Rights prevents the community and the jury to know this information. Murderous cops and evil cops walk in our community protected by this Bill. Get rid of this Bill and then we will see what we are dealing with in our officers that patrol our community.”
I did not lose a nephew to a police bullet, and I can only guess at how Johnson and others in his position feel. It probably does not take a bullet, however, to create the perception of “evil cops” as outsiders in a community. All it takes is for police to act in a way that makes ordinary people wish the cops would go someplace else. New York’s stop-and-frisk policy has done just that, until now.