Just over a week after Boston became the first American city in modern history to experience a law enforcement “lockdown,” the question of appropriate police strategies for public safety and security surged to the forefront of New York City's mayoral race.
Democratic mayoral candidates, facing off in a criminal justice-themed debate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice last night, focused on the controversial “stop, question and frisk” tactics that the New York Police Department (NYPD) claims have been largely responsible for the city's plummeting crime rates over the past decade.
The tactic, which is used in cities throughout the country and involves stopping and questioning people who police deem to be acting suspiciously, has come under withering attack from civil rights advocates in New York City, who point out that more than 90 percent of its targets are black or Hispanic.
At least one of the candidates argued that the tactic hampers law enforcement's ability to effectively combat the continuing threat of terrorism in New York City.
“You have to have good communication between police and the community for intelligence-gathering,” said the city's Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
“There is a direct connection between overcoming some of the problems that have been created by the overuse of stop and frisk, and making sure we have a close relationship between police and community.”
The winner of the Democratic Party primary, slated for September 10, is expected by most analysts to be a shoo-in to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg in November.
The debate pitted City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the frontrunner, against contenders de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu and former Comptroller William Thompson—as well as two who are considered long shots: Erick Salgado, a Brooklyn pastor, and former Councilman Sal Albanese.
Moderator Errol Louis of NY1 TV began the debate by asking candidates how they would address the city's terror response strategy in the wake of the Boston bombings.
Most agreed the city needed to invest more in surveillance strategies and policing—even as they made clear they would continue the NYPD's sophisticated counterterrorism bureau.
That bureau, among the largest in the country with as many as 1,000 officers dedicated to intelligence and homeland security operations, claims to have foiled over a dozen plots since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“The NYPD has done an outstanding job (in) keeping this city safe from terror attacks,” said Quinn.
None of the contenders directly referred to Boston's unprecedented decision to order all citizens to stay in their homes, while more than 9,000 law enforcement personnel staged a massive manhunt for the bombing suspects in the Marathon bombings—a decision which has since aroused some criticism.
But with New York still regarded as one of the world's prime targets for terrorism, the debate participants drew some sobering lessons about the city's continuing vulnerability.
City Comptroller John Liu pointed out that the city's post-9/11 goal of installing cellular communication systems in the subway system has stalled for over a decade.
In the last two years, the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has slowly rolled out cell phone service in certain stations, but the majority of the subway system is still a mobile dead zone.
Quinn called for the city to invest heavily in high-tech mobile cameras. The NYPD purchased 100 mobile cameras last week as part of a response plan to the Boston attack. The truck-mounted equipment can be moved from spot to spot, allowing law enforcement to adapt to rapidly changing surveillance needs.
“(With this technology), criminals and terrorists are never going to know exactly where the cameras are.” Quinn said. “
Surveillance cameras posted in streets and nearby stores were among the critical tools cited by Boston police as helping them to quickly identify the bombing suspects last week.
All six candidates also called for hiring an additional 3,000 officers for what is already the country's largest municipal police department. A series of budget cuts over the last decade have cut the city's police force from a high of nearly 41,000 officers in 2001, to its current level — a 20 year low — of about 34,000. Quinn and Thompson both noted that the extra manpower would be a boon for both anti-crime and anti-terror efforts.
But the candidates saved most of their ire for the “stop and frisk” strategies, which have already come under sharp attack from civil liberties groups and the African-American community as a form of racial profiling—and which are now the subject of two pending lawsuits.
The audience, too, seemed most energized by discussion on the topic, erupting in cheers several times, despite a request from moderator Errol Louis that the crowd remain silent.
The controversial police practice — which led to nearly 700,000 frisks in 2011 — found its way into candidate answers to nearly every question.
Liu said the practice is so endemic in the city's poorest neighborhoods, that police typically skip the “question” part.
“There is no question, it's just stop and frisk,” Liu said, adding that it “is the biggest form of racial profiling we have anywhere in America.”
The NYPD has also come under sharp criticism for its surveillance of Muslim students and other groups, including the use of paid informants.
In response to the controversy over stop, question and frisk — as well as to allegations of racism within the NYPD — the New York City Council recently announced that it is considering a bill to create an Inspector General position, with broad subpoena powers to review police department policies.
Although Bloomberg has vowed to veto the bill, candidates stressed that New York is behind the curve nationally.
“The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security both have inspector generals,” Quinn said.
She added that Los Angeles has an inspector general, “and a year after they instituted it, crime went down 33 percent and approval of the community went up to 83 percent.”
Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.