As New York City prepares for a new mayor and police commissioner, both of whom speak of bringing about an era of reform, experts warn that police practice is not easily changed.
“There may not be that much difference in how the police department conducts itself,” even though Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and incoming police commissioner Bill Bratton have promised to reform the use of “stop-question-and-frisk” tactics by the New York Police Department (NYPD), said Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College.
Levine spoke at a gathering of attorneys, academics and advocates at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York yesterday to discuss alternatives to the NYPD's use of the controversial police practice of stopping civilians whom they suspect may be involved in criminal behavior.
New York City has been at the epicenter of a national debate over “stop-and-frisk” over the past year.
Outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Raymond Kelly credit the practice with helping decrease crime during the last decade.
But In August a federal judge, Shira Scheindlin, called the policy unconstitutional and ordered immediate changes to the program, as well; as a monitor to supervise reforms. A federal Court of Appeals removed Scheindlin from the case for possible violations to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, in part because of interviews with media that the court said called her impartiality into question.
A separate ruling by the same court denied motions by New York City to vacate Scheindlin's ruling.
According to a report released last month by the New York Attorney General's Office, between 2009 and 2012, NYPD officers conducted 2.4 million stops. About 3 percent led to convictions; fewer than 0.1 percent were convicted of violent crimes or weapons-related crimes.
The report also confirmed earlier studies showing that African Americans and Hispanics are significantly more likely to be stopped and frisked than whites, and more likely to receive punitive court action as a result.
To attorneys like Andrea Ritchie of Streetwise and Safe, an organization that educates minority gay and lesbian youth about their rights, the report only underlined what many involved in New York's court system already knew.
“It shows that racial disparities persist all the way through sentencing,” Ritchie said. “It's really helpful for us as practicing attorneys to be able to say, 'this is the reality.'”
But how should the city implement changes to a policy so widely used?
At a press conference on Dec. 5, NYPD Commisioner-Designate Bratton said he intended to reduce stop-and-frisk by building better relations between police and residents in high crime areas.
“In this city, I want every New Yorker to talk about their police with respect and confidence,” Bratton said.
Bratton previously served as commissioner for two years in the 1990s. During his tenure, he implemented quality-of-life “broken windows” policing, which stresses eliminating low-level crime as a means to reduce crime overall.
Ritchie and others at the conference were unconvinced that minority groups would fare any better under “broken windows” than they do under “stop-and-frisk.”
“If you read the article that is the underpinning of that theory, it literally names young people of color out on the corner as a nuisance,” Ritchie said, referring to a 1982 piece in the magazine Atlantic Monthly.
Lynn Lewis, of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group, said that under Bratton and Kelly, “broken windows” has meant clearing homeless people off the street “to show that we're open for business.”
“Policing can't solve homelessness … we have a really serious housing crisis, but there's a connection. The money we spend on policing, could be spent on housing,” Lewis said.
Lewis and others at the conference said the shape of reform under de Blasio and Bratton should be decided through conversations between representatives of multiple stakeholders in police reform.
They pointed to decade-old reform efforts in Cincinnati, where a series of police shootings of black teenagers, and riots in response, led to a “collaborative agreement” between community groups and the police.
The agreement required the police to adopt problem-oriented policing in which officers attempt to address the underlying causes of crime.
Iris Roley, a representative of the Cincinnati Black United Front, which participated in the 2001 negotiations, said the collaboration made typically opposing sides feel invested in its success.
“Community must be at the table, and it should be at the table in the beginning,” Roley said.
Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes responses from readers.