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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mayor Lee's Stop-and-Frisk Idea Was Not Just Controversial, but Uncreative

Posted By on Tue, Aug 7, 2012 at 1:50 PM

click to enlarge On second thought ...
  • On second thought ...
On May 16, federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin granted class-action status to a lawsuit opposing New York City's stop-and-frisk policy. As the New York Times reported, "she was disturbed by the city's 'deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers' most fundamental constitutional rights.'"

In her ruling, Scheindlin cited several of Columbia University law and public health professor Jeffrey Fagan's "factual determinations":

  • Between 2004 and 2009, NYPD officers conducted at least 170,000 unlawful frisks -- where there was no reasonable suspicion to stop the person.
  • In 4,000 of those stops, "police gave no reason other than 'high crime area' to justify the stop."
  • "The percentage of documented stops for which police officers failed to list an interpretable 'suspected crime' has grown dramatically from 1.1 percent in 2004 to 35.9 percent in 2009."
  • "Guns were seized in .15 percent of all stops. This despite the fact that 'suspicious bulge' was cited as a reason for 10.4 percent of all stops."
  • "Police officers are more likely to list no suspected crime category (or an incoherent one) when stopping Blacks and Latinos than when stopping Whites."

Six weeks after and 3,000 miles away from Scheindlin's order, Mayor Ed Lee announced that he was considering implementing stop-and-frisk in San Francisco. Apparently, a meeting with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg had turned him onto the strategy. For more than a month, Lee stood firm through a wave of outrage. But this week, he is backing away from the idea, without ever having explained why it would work better here than it has in other cities.

"He doesn't want to implement a policy that has the potential to include racial profiling," said his spokeswoman, Christine Falvey, according to the Chronicle. "Looking at best practices, he came up with other options that have a lot more community support."

From the start, the mayor suggested that his city's version of stop-and-frisk would be different from the ones in New York City and Philadelphia, which are both facing lawsuits because of the policy. The problem was that he never explained how -- only dropping vague lines about how it would not involve racial profiling and noting that he would rename the strategy in order to avoid the negative connotations.

"I will evolve as we go through this, evolve names of programs," Lee told the Chron. "If it means rephrasing that, I'll be clearly open to that, but I've got to get the guns."

Which means, the plan wasn't just constitutionally controversial, but uncreative as well. Even Lee's boy Bloomberg recently acknowledged that stop-and-frisk has its flaws, that "the practice needs to be 'mended, not ended,'" as NYC's mayor said in June.

When Bloomberg implemented stop-and-frisk in 2002, it was innovative and promising, its potential problems still theoretical. Since then, problems have emerged that Bloomberg is now looking to "mend." Lee, despite the advantage of hindsight, announced his support for stop-and-frisk without offering any tangible improvements to the policy. He pitched an idea liberals have opposed for years without explaining why liberals should support it this time around.

Stop-and-frisk's effect on crime remains questionable. Civil liberty and personal safety are on opposite ends of the seesaw, and most debates over police enforcement strategies are debates about finding the proper balance.

Lee did not advance that debate.

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Albert Samaha

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