The New York Police Department faces unprecedented fire over stop-and-frisk, a tactic officials herald for curbing the city’s once notorious murder rate, but which critics see as a racially charged assault on human rights.
Champions on both sides of the debate chimed in Friday a day after the police commissioner, Ray Kelly, took a rare backwards step by announcing measures meant to bring the program under greater control.
Last year, police stopped, questioned and searched city residents a record 684,330 times, official figures show.
The policy allows officers to stop anyone looking suspicious and is primarily aimed at getting illegal weapons and drugs off the streets.
However, of all the people stopped, nearly nine in 10 were black or Hispanic. Only one in 10 were arrested or issued a summons, while less than two in 100 stops led to the recovery of a weapon, according to analysis of official data by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have staunchly defended the ever-expanding program, saying it is partly responsible over the last decade for halving a murder rate that once made New York one of the most dangerous cities in the developed world.
On Thursday, though, Kelly responded to rising pressure — including a ruling by a federal judge to allow a class action lawsuit — and announced orders meant to eliminate racial profiling and illegal stops.
That wasn’t enough for Juan Cartagena, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a civil rights group, who in a blog on the Huffington Post called the police “predators in blue” and New York “the ground zero of over-policing.”
The New York Civil Liberties Union, a leading rights advocacy group, also had little time for Kelly’s reforms. Donna Lieberman, the executive director, told The New York Times that what was missing was “a clear recognition that the system is broken.”
“What is needed is systemic overhaul for policing in communities of color, particularly of stop-and-frisk,” she said.
Bloomberg stuck to his guns, telling WOR-AM radio Friday that Kelly’s policies helped non-whites by keeping violent crime down in the neighborhoods where they live.
The old New York murder rate, he said, would have translated into 5,600 more killings than occurred over the last decade and “an overwhelmingly number of those would have been young black and Hispanic men — 90 percent of them.”
“We don’t racial profile,” Bloomberg said. “We look to see where the crime is.”
Albert O’Leary, spokesman for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a police union, said officers themselves question the situation.
According to O’Leary, police commanders impose stop-and-frisk quotas — something the NYPD denies — and this encourages unnecessary stops, making cops unpopular in the neighborhoods they have to patrol.
“When left to the discretion of the police officer on patrol, stop-and-frisk is a very effective crime fighting tool, but when quotas are assigned, it lessens the impact and it can become abusive,” O’Leary told AFP.
O’Leary said that any strategy to remove illegal firearms is beneficial, because “you are probably stopping a homicide and countless armed robberies from one gun.”
“The problem is for our officers when they’re working in a community, the community they’ve sworn to protect,” he said. “You’re turning the community against us. You become an occupying force.”
In his radio appearance, Bloomberg said critics had the wrong focus.
“We’re not going to walk away from tactics that work,” he said.
[New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly is pictured in January 2012. AFP Photo/Spencer Platt]