Stop-and-frisk in New York City

If you live in the New York City area, you are undoubtedly aware of the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy.  In the last decade, the police, acting on “reasonable suspicion,” have been randomly stopping and searching hundreds of thousands of individuals on the streets on NYC.  According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the number of stops carried out by the NYPD has skyrocketed in the last decade.  In 2002, the police stopped 97,296 people under stop-and-frisk.  Nine years later in 2011, that number had leaped up to 685,742 stops, a 600 percent increase.  Of those stopped, approximately 89 percent were found to be innocent of any wrongdoing.

The major reason for the controversy over stop-and-frisk is that more than 90 percent of those searched have been black or Latino.  Accusations of racial profiling have been leveled at the NYPD.  In addition, there are numerous persistent rumors that police officers have been given stop-and-frisk quotas to meet each month, that they are under explicit orders to search as many pedestrians as possible.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg and NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly have both steadfastly and unflinchingly defended stop-and-frisk.  They have argued that it has led to a significant drop in crime throughout the city.

The problem, critics contend, is that, decreases in crime or not, the policy has caused tremendous rifts between African American & Hispanic communities and the NYPD.  Minority groups who are traditionally suspicious & fearful of the police have become even more so.  One can argue that any short-term gains in combating crime are being undermined by the deep mistrust being planted through the widespread use of stop-and-frisk.

It is also worth noting that decreases in crime are generally complex in nature.  Most experts will tell you that lower crime rates are attributable to numerous factors, and one single policy such as stop-and-frisk cannot solely be credited for a downturn in illegal activities.

On May 16, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin granted class-action status to a lawsuit against the city for the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk.  In response, Ray Kelly has finally agreed to modify his department’s practices, enacting certain “policy changes.”  Obviously, it is too soon to see if he will follow through on his promises, and in what manner, if any, it affects the usage of stop-and-frisk.

Most critics of stop-and-frisk will readily admit that the practice does have its time & place, but it has been overused and directed almost exclusively at minorities.  More than one local politician has made the analogy that stop-and-frisk ought to be used selectively like a finely-tuned instrument instead of repeatedly as a blunt object.

I think this is a very well articulated argument.  There is a legitimate time & place for stop-and-frisk when there is justifiable cause.  I realize that “reasonable suspicion” is a term that can be broadly interpreted.  But the police are supposed to be trained to look for genuine suspicious activity that needs to be investigated.  They should not be receiving orders to carry out blanket searches of minority areas to fulfill some quota dreamed up by their supervisors in an empty effort to make Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly appear tough on crime.  In addition to the previously cited counterproductive effect on relations with the general public, this overuse of stop-and-frisk is a tremendous waste of the time and resources of the NYPD.

I am not at all surprised that it has taken so long for Kelly to offer even the slightest hint of compromise on this issue.  Both he and Bloomberg have been in power in too long.  They believe that they are above any sort of criticism, and that attitude has definitely manifested itself in their abuse of the stop-and-frisk policy.  Hopefully the current lawsuit, as well as continued pressure from the City Council, will eventually result in some sort of tangible change in the NYPD’s practices.  However, I suspect that any significant alterations to the policy will have to wait until the next mayor and police commissioner are in office.

Liberty versus Security

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide, you shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance, now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind, I’m afraid it’s too late
We’re concerned you’re a threat
You’re not integral to the project

Pet Shop Boys, “Integral”

In the last decade, as the “War on Terror” has been raged, first by the Bush and then the Obama administrations, the question of the balance between liberty and security has been a fierce one.  This is not a new debate, though.  The questions and controversies surrounding increased governmental powers and limitations on civil rights date back to the early years of our nation.

In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed into law as a reaction to the French Revolution’s bloody Reign of Terror.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus.  Although Lincoln is regarded as one of the greatest of the U.S. Presidents, this is an action that a century and a half later is still hotly debated among historians.  And during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast within internment camps.

So the continuing reactionary policies of certain politicians in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, although disheartening, are anything but unprecedented.  On December 31, 2011, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act.  One provision of the law is that it affirmed the ability of the federal government to indefinitely imprison without trial any individuals, including American citizens.  Many have regarded this as just the latest trampling of the Bill of Rights by an increasingly unchecked government.  Myself, I was very disappointed that Obama signed this into law.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  It is an election year, after all, and he obviously did not want to appear weak on national security.  Whatever else he is, Obama is a shrewd individual who wants to gain a second term as President.  He is certainly not the first politician to forsake his stated principles in order to court votes.

More recently, here in New York City, it has been revealed that the NY Police Department has been conducting extensive surveillance of Muslim-American businesses and students, even going so far as to follow them out-of-state.  There are concerns that the NYPD is not acting on any legitimate leads or suspicions, but rather engaging in racial profiling.  The Associated Press’s revelation of these actions has resulted in criticism not just from the Muslim community, but from officials in New Jersey and Washington DC.  The FBI seems to be regarding the NYPD’s lone wolf tactics as having both damaged several of their own investigations, as well as harming relations between the government and the Muslim community.  Unsurprisingly, despite all of the criticism, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have imperiously refused to back down, retorting that their actions were both legal and necessary to save lives from possible terrorist threats.

It appears that it is within our nature to all-to-quickly give in to fear, to be ready to forsake our liberty for a comforting feeling of security.  We should do well to remember the words often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, namely that those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.

Please keep in mind that I am not claiming that legitimate threats to our security do not exist.  They do, and we need to safeguard against them.  But in the process, it is crucial that we do not destroy the very freedoms we are fighting to safeguard.  There must ever be a balance between liberty and security.  Too much of one extreme or the other can lead to devastating consequences.