“You think rising cell phone thefts are bad? Wait till car thefts soar back over 100,000 a year. Wait till you start hearing about mushrooms and learn that the word refers to children who have been struck by stray bullets.”
So opined the editorial board of the New York Daily News in response to public scrutiny of the New York Police Department's “stop-and-frisk” policy -- a controversial program that last year alone resulted in over 685,000 stops of primarily black and Latino residents (only 12% of persons stopped were charged with a crime). This week, Manhattan Federal Court Judge Shira Scheindlin granted class action status to a group of victims of the policy who are bringing suit against the city for what they argue is a discriminatory and unconstitutional practice. The Daily News, as well as the New York Post, viewed the ruling -- which they inexplicably believe risks the existence of the “stop-and-frisk” practice altogether -- as nothing less than life-threatening.
In the aforementioned editorial, titled “How to kill New York,” the Daily News editorial board ominously predicted that If the program is reformed, 'the body count will start rising.'
The NY Post's editors weighed in as well, attacking outspoken critics of the program whom the editors say “won't rest until the murder rate skyrockets”:
They're playing with fire -- all of them.
Indeed, if they do manage to weaken the program, the blood of new crime victims will be on their hands.
So: Will the city once again become the Crime Capital of the World?
Alas, so it seems.
In between bouts of apocalyptic rhetoric, the editors of the Daily News casually dismissed serious constitutional concerns about the policy. The Daily News described the NYPD's prolific stop-and-frisk policy as a “perfectly legal, perfectly constitutional program of asking people to produce identification and explain their business when cops have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is about to be committed.”
Legal experts, however, have disagreed with that description of how “stop-and-frisk” has been actually implemented in New York. From WNYC:
[Judge Scheindlin] also noted how thousands of stops -- on the face of the [stop-and-frisk reports] alone -- reflected “facially insufficient” stops. For example, she found the sole justification of “furtive movements” too subjective and vague to form the basis for reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and that “high crime area” was checked off on forms in all precincts, including precincts with low crime rates.
Criminal justice advocates say, therefore, a detailed conversation with the officer who conducted the stop is necessary to truly evaluate whether the stop was lawful.
“Merely looking at the paper wouldn't be sufficient,” said former New York State governor Eliot Spitzer, who served as the state's Attorney General between 1999 and 2006. “What needs to then follow from that is a conversation, an inquiry, about what factors are legitimate factors in being the foundation for a stop and then a frisk.”
While attorney general, Spitzer commissioned a study in 1999 of citywide stop and frisks, which concluded that people of color were disproportionately impacted.
In addition, a detailed analysis by the NYCLU found that NYPD officers may be engaging in thousands of illegal frisks:
Though the term “stop-and-frisk” is often used, stops and frisks are two separate acts that involve two different levels of required legal justification. To stop a person, a police officer must have reasonable suspicion the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an unlawful act. To frisk a person, however, the officer must have reason to believe the person stopped has a weapon that poses a threat to the officer's safety, a higher and more specific standard.
Data from 2011 stops indicate that NYPD officers are routinely frisking people without suspicion that the person has a weapon. Of the 685,724 stops last years, officers conducted frisks in 381,704 of them, or 55.7 percent of all stops.
While this figure alone strongly suggests that officers are engaging in far too many frisks, the concern that officers are unjustifiably frisking people is clearly demonstrated by the fact that weapons were found in only 1.9 percent of the instances in which frisks were conducted in 2011.
Clearly, there are serious questions about the policy that deserve to be asked. Despite the fear-mongering of the New York media, merely allowing victims to challenge the policy will not result in the streets of New York City running red with blood.