A ruling against the NYPDs successful stop, question and frisk policy would be sure to inspire lawsuits in other cities.
A racial-profiling lawsuit over the New York Police Departments "stop, question and frisk" policies is now in the hands of a judge whose decision is expected within weeks. Many New Yorkers watched the two-and-a-half-month trial nervously, concerned that a ruling against the NYPD by U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin could spell an end to a police practice that helped the city achieve an astonishing drop in violent crime.
But non-New Yorkers would do well to worry about the case too. A decision against the NYPD would almost certainly inspire similar suits by social-justice organizations against police departments elsewhere. The national trend of declining crime could hang in the balance. And the primary victims of such a reversal would be the inner-city minorities whose safety seems not to figure into attempts to undermine successful police tactics.
New York-style policing—including the practice of stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking individuals engaged in suspicious behavior—ought be the citys most valued export. Since the early 1990s, New York has experienced the longest and steepest crime drop in the modern history of policing. Murders have gone down by nearly 80%, and combined major felonies by nearly 75%. No other American metropolis comes close to New Yorks achievement. Bostonians are twice as likely to be murdered as New Yorkers, and residents of Washington, D.C., three times as likely.
The biggest beneficiaries of a dramatically safer New York have been law-abiding residents of formerly crime-plagued areas. Minorities make up nearly 80% of the drop in homicide victims since the early 1990s. New York policing has transformed inner-city neighborhoods and allowed their hardworking members a once-unthinkable freedom from fear.
But the citys policing, whose key elements include the rigorous analysis of crime data and commander accountability for public safety, also has been dogged by misconceptions, including the notion that New York policing is racist.
That perception is what drove the just-completed litigation. The suit, Floyd v. New York, specifically targeted stop, question and frisk (critics chronically leave out the "question" part, even though only about half of stops go beyond questioning to actually entail a frisk). This practice, sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968, is at the revolutionary core of New York policing, which aims to stop crime before it happens, rather than simply react to crime after the fact by making an arrest. If a neighborhood has been plagued by purse-snatchings, for example, and an officer sees someone walking closely behind an elderly lady while looking furtively over his shoulder, the cop might stop him and ask a few questions. The stop may avert a theft without resulting in an arrest.
The Center for Constitutional Rights and lawyers from the elite law firm of Covington & Burling, however, charge in Floyd that such proactive tactics are discriminatory, since blacks and Hispanics make up the large majority of individuals stopped and questioned by NYPD cops. The claim ignores the reality that the preponderance of crime perpetrators, and victims, in New York are also minorities. Blacks, for example, constituted 78% of shooting suspects and 74% of all shooting victims in 2012, even though they are less than 23% of the citys population.
Whites, by contrast, committed just over 2% of shootings and were under 3% of shooting victims in 2012, though they are 35% of the populace. Young black men in New York are 36 times more likely to be murdered than young white men—and their assailants are virtually always other black (or Hispanic) males.
Given such a crime imbalance, if the NYPD focuses its resources where people most need protection, the effort will inevitably produce racially disparate enforcement data. Blacks, at 55% of all police-stop subjects in 2012, are actually understopped compared with their 66% representation among violent criminals.
Nevertheless, the spurious claims in Floyd have already been affecting public-safety decisions in the rest of the country, even before the judges decision is announced.
In 2012, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, after a discussion with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, proposed upping San Franciscos stop, question and frisk activity to combat a spike of shootings in the citys housing projects. Protests broke out immediately. Local activists called police stops the "New Jim Crow." A petition signed by thousands claimed that stop-and-frisk would "legitimize and legalize racial discrimination." Police Chief Greg Suhr announced "we do not racially profile in San Francisco." After nearly two months of agitation, Mayor Lee backed down.
Reaction was even more furious to a proposal this January by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan to hire William Bratton, the original architect of New Yorks policing revolution, as a crime consultant. Crime in Oakland has soared while pedestrian and car stops have plummeted under a federal policing consent decree that imposes enormous amounts of red tape on police stops and the use of force. Protesters from the Occupy Oakland movement and other left-wing groups brandished "Killer Cops" signs at City Council meetings discussing the Bratton contract. When Mayor Quan and the city council hired Mr. Bratton anyway, the crowd in City Hall shouted: "Let the war begin!"
These incidents are a harbinger of the opposition likely to be spurred in other cities if the Floyd ruling goes against the NYPD. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has said that it will be a "tragedy" if his city is forced to curtail the pedestrian stops that have reduced crime in inner-city neighborhoods. "Thats what worries us about whats happening in New York," Chief Flynn told the Los Angeles Times in April. "It would just be a shame if some people decided to put us back in our cars just answering calls and ceding the streets to thugs."
The irony is that Floyd itself, once it came to trial after five years of preparation, was even weaker than the illogic of its underlying argument would have predicted. The suits 12 named complainants, standing in for a class of potentially millions, alleged that they had been accosted simply because of their race, yet many either fit a description of a criminal suspect or were engaged in behavior—such as trying to jostle open a house door in a burglary-plagued area—that clearly should have drawn an officers attention.
The Obama Justice Department, which has launched multiple civil-rights actions against police departments across the country, declined a 2012 request from some New York City Council members to investigate the NYPD for its stop practices. Yet Judge Scheindlin is unlikely to be so circumspect in her ruling. It was Judge Scheindlin, after all, who invited the Center for Constitutional Rights to file Floyd in the first place, after the center missed a deadline to extend an earlier stop, question and frisk ruling of hers that required the collection of the racial stop data now fueling Floyd. If she rules against the NYPD again, the city would most likely be saddled with a costly consent decree like Oaklands, which puts a federal judge in ultimate control of police policy.
Such a result, unless reversed on appeal, would be bad enough for New Yorks most vulnerable residents, who deserve NYPDs continued protection. But activists across the country should not be encouraged to use the courts to curtail sound policing elsewhere, under the specious principle that police activity that matches the incidence of crime is presumptively racist.
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