New York's Stop-and-Frisk War Has Reached the Breaking Point

The City Council passed a policy to severely curtail the practice.

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Reuters

At about the moment that New York City marks the five millionth recorded time that its police have stopped and frisked someone — most likely an innocent person of color — the City Council passed a policy to severely curtail the practice. In a dramatic 2 a.m. vote Thursday morning, the Council approved measures to create independent oversight of the police force and to give those affected by the practice legal recourse. The police commissioner and Mayor Bloomberg are not happy.

In a way, the Council merely accelerated the inevitable. The NYPD's practice of confronting and searching people has been the focus of judicial scrutiny for years, prompting both a system for recording the stops (4.98 million of them from the end of 2002 to the end of March) and a civil rights lawsuit. A judgment in that suit is imminent, and would almost certainly have resulted in some sort of oversight mechanism anyway. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice offered to provide a monitor to ensure the department's transition away from the practice.

That may no longer be necessary. The measures passed overnight do two things, as reported by The New York Times.

One, known as Intro 1079, would create an independent inspector general to monitor and review police policy, conduct investigations and recommend changes to the department. The monitor would be part of the city’s Investigation Department alongside the inspectors general for other city agencies. …

The other bill, Intro 1080, would expand the definition of bias-based profiling to include age, gender, housing status and sexual orientation. It also would allow individuals to sue the Police Department in state court — not only for individual instances of bias, but also for policies that disproportionately affect people in any protected categories without serving a significant law enforcement goal.

In every year since 2002, blacks and Latinos have comprised over 80 percent of those stopped and frisked by the NYPD.

Getting the bills passed — and ensuring they'll go into force — required some political machinations. Councilmember Peter Vallone, who told The Times that passage of the bills meant New Yorkers "are going to wake up in a much more dangerous city," refused to allow them out of his public safety committee, forcing Council Speaker Christine Quinn to employ a tactic allowing them to come to the floor. Both measures passed by a more than 2-to-1 vote, meaning that when the mayor vetoes them — which he will — there are enough votes to overturn that veto.

The mayor and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, will continue to lobby the Council in an effort to reduce that majority. So far, that has meant some remarkably strong language. Each sent letters to the Council stressing their positions; at least one commander of a local precinct sent a similar note to his Councilmember. At a press conference earlier this week, as Capital New York reported, the two lambasted the proposals. Kelly's rhetoric: "Take heart, Al Qaeda wannabes." It is not known how many terror attacks have been halted due to stop-and-frisk. Bloomberg singled out the Inspector General:

Bloomberg said a second bill, creating an inspector general for the NYPD, would allow "gang members to make anonymous complaints" about officers. And "the inspector general would have to review and the NYPD would have to dedicate time and resources to answering the gang members' anonymous complaints."

As Capital New York reporter Azi Paybarah notes, "The mayor suggested anonymous complaints about police offers are not currently investigated."

It was inevitable that the police department at some point be forced to change its practices. How that affects law enforcement effectiveness and morale remains to be seen. But it's hard to argue that modifications coming from the democratically elected members of the City Council are somehow worse than ones mandated by a judge or supplied the federal government.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire.

About the Author

  • Philip Bump is a former politics writer for The Atlantic Wire.