Judge Shira A. Scheindlin's decision in Floyd v. the City of New York makes clear that regardless of race, gender, age, or socio-economic status, all New Yorkers have a right to use the public streets without undue interference by the police.
It also makes clear that regardless of the justification offered for a particular police practice, members of the New York Police Department (NYPD) must act within the legal limits set by the Constitution.
Both these propositions—the entitlement to liberty and the requirement that police act within the limits of the law—ideally should be supported by those on the political left and the political right. And yet, the decision continues to stir, rather than resolve, the controversy over the NYPD's stop and frisk practices.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed to appeal the decision, claiming that it will make the city unsafe— even though he is aware that during 2012, when stops recorded by the police declined by 22 percent, the number of homicides in the city also fell by 17 percent.
In 2013, the City continues to record its lowest number of murders, at the same time that statistics for stops are down by 51 percent. In a June 28th New York Times article, NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly reported that the decline in homicides is likely due to two policing strategies that are not dependent on widespread undifferentiated stops: one is aimed at reducing the likelihood of gang retaliation; and the other is aimed at reducing the likelihood that domestic violence cases will turn lethal.
Strategies that focus on a small number of active lawbreakers are demonstrably more effective than a strategy that each year nets comparatively few guns and small amounts of marijuana while unnecessarily embarrassing, inconveniencing and sometimes physically abusing hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent people.
(For exact numbers on how stop and frisk has played out across the city from 2003 through March of 2013 visit www.stopandfriskinfo.org to review a full copy of Stop, Question and Frisk Policing Practices in New York City: A Primer (Revised) by clicking on “view now” at the right side of the page).
Most disturbing is the Mayor's and Commissioner's continued insistence that the focus on Blacks and Latinos does not amount to racial profiling and is legally legitimate even when the NYPD's own data, uncontested at trial, shows that nearly 90 percent of Blacks and Latinos who were stopped had not engaged in “legal wrongdoing,” the judge wrote in the executive summary of the opinion.
In 2012, this thinking led to nearly 255,000 non-Hispanic Blacks being stopped on suspicion of crime but never charged. These are the numbers recorded by the police. Based on the accounts by both police officers and civilians, an untold number of these stops take place without being counted.
In comparison, just over 19,000 serious crime suspects were reported as Black from among a population of more than 2.2 million., and nearly all of those suspects were identified by a process other than stop and frisk. Specifically for the offense of homicide, while 53.7 percent of suspects were listed as Black, in the NYPD's Crime and Enforcement Activity report for 2012, that percentage equates to 154 Black suspects compared to 288,584 Blacks stopped, or nearly 2,000 times more stops than suspects.
The Mayor's and Police Commissioner's responses to Judge Scheindlin's decision fail to acknowledge the fact that the practice of stop and frisk carried out over the last ten years has been abysmally inaccurate in detecting crime and has led to the intimidation of hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers and their guests as they have attempted to live normal lives.
Their adamant defense of a practice that is almost exclusively experienced by people of color raises the question of whether the behavior would be quite as accepted if their own relatives were being subjected to it. The response is found, in part, by Mayor Bloomberg's claims that “Whites are overstopped” or “should be stopped less.”
Judge Scheindlin's 195-page opinion takes all of these factors into account and arrives at a place that, if we were truly a colorblind society, we should all be able to accept. It acknowledges the overwhelming evidence pointing to the need to reform this otherwise valuable police practice.
Instead, the response by these two government officials fails to even acknowledge that police recover more illegal items, including weapons, from the Whites who are stopped and frisked far less frequently than other groups.
Although the judge expressly made clear that her ruling was not about the effectiveness of the practice for controlling crime, supporters cling to the effectiveness claim in “deliberate indifference” to the complaints raised by those who are most frequently affected by it. This very indifference is a major contributor to the judge's ruling.
In this, the 50th year, of the March on Washington, when thousands of Americans joined with African Americans to affirm their rights as full-citizens of the United States, especially their right to freely use public space, it is tremendously disheartening to see that in a city as diverse as New York with the largest and most respected police force, these high level public officials fail to yield to overwhelming evidence that, , a decade-long practice, however well-intentioned, has deprived many law-abiding New Yorkers of the very rights that were adamantly fought for a half century ago.
To suggest that New Yorkers of Color must choose between public safety and constitutional rights is unconscionable on many levels that Judge Scheindlin has artfully and thoroughly laid out in her decision.
The strength of American values will be tested by its ability to withstand any subsequent appeals.
EDITOR'S NOTE: for a Crime Report commentary by Dr. Jones-Brown on an earlier (January 2013) ruling by Judge Scheindlin on the same issue, please click HERE
Delores Jones-Brown, J.D., PH.D., is a Professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College and is founding director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice. She is also a former New Jersey prosecutor. She welcomes comments from readers.