It’s not much of a stretch to argue that the more information government possesses about people, the easier it is to identify the perpetrators of crime. Heck, the more power government has to do much of anything, the easier it is for government to do whatever it wants to do. And so the argument went with the New York Stop & Frisk database.
The problem was that anybody who was stopped became a member of this less-than-exclusive club. No crime needed. Innocent or not. Stopped because some cop thought you looked at him cross-eyed, no matter. They took your info and put you into their computer under the “you-never-know” theory of policing. Commissioner Ray Kelly thinks it’s a great idea. So does Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Governor David Paterson, in signing a law prohibiting the maintenance of this database of the innocents, doesn’t see it that way :
“This law does not in any way tamper with our stop-and-frisk policies,” Paterson said. “What it does is it disallows the use of personal data of innocent people who have not done anything wrong. … That is not a policy for a democracy.”
Imagine, the cops can’t collect and maintain data of the innocent. Wild, right? Crazy? Putting the safety of every New Yorker at risk? Maybe not.
Last year alone, the New York Police Department stopped 575,304 people, mostly black and Hispanic men, and recorded their names, addresses and descriptions into an electronic database. The stops are based on a standard of reasonable suspicion, lower than the standard of probable cause needed to justify an arrest. Only about 6 percent of those stopped are arrested.
But that’s more a condemnation of the stop & frisk policy, given that 94% of those whose right to be left alone is subject to the whim of a police officer and his ability to mouth the words “furtive gesture.” What about the post stop use of the data collected from the innocents? Via the New York Times :
All told, the summaries provided by Mr. Kelly — the fruit of the police policy of entering into a database the names and addresses of everyone stopped on suspicion of a crime in the city’s streets, whether or not they are arrested — covered crimes dating to 2005. City police officers have made roughly 2.5 million of what are known as stop-and-frisk street encounters since then.
The examples Mr. Kelly provided included 170 cases from all five boroughs, mostly from the last 18 months, for at least 17 murders, 8 sex crimes, 36 robberies and 67 burglaries. An arrest resulted in most, but not all of the cases, the documents show.
From the Kelly side of the equation, this proves that the database of the innocents is working, as 170 cases were solved. But Gov. Paterson was looking at it through the eyes of the 2.5 million people stopped and frisked, whose information would reside in perpetuity in the bowels of a police server, and found this showing insufficient.
A look at these 170 cases shows instances where the stop-and-frisk data clearly did assist investigators in tracking down perpetrators. In many cases, the data provided shortcuts that speeded investigations along, such as providing hangouts of a known suspect or the names and addresses of potential witnesses known to frequent a location where a crime occurred.
But in many of the cases, it was hard to determine how helpful the data was in solving crimes, because the information provided to the governor was, in his words, “at best inconclusive.”
In many of the cases, however, the summaries provide strong evidence that the stop-and-frisk data played a less than essential role — and sometimes hardly any role at all.
The collection of data by the government on its citizens is perhaps the slipperiest of slopes we face in the digital age. Here it’s information. The collection of DNA from everyone arrested, even in the absence of conviction, is very much a part of this effort on the part of government to eliminate any vestige of privacy that once characterized American freedom. Most people lack the capacity to follow this trend to its logical extreme, or anticipate technological advancements that will fundamentally alter what government knows about us.
While Gov. Paterson’s signing this law may be viewed as a small step, maybe just a baby step, in light of the rampant and flagrant use of stop & frisk of the innocent, not to mention DNA databases of all arrestees, it is a step in the right direction. There was a serious question whether there was any chance, any hope, that anyone in government would pull back from informational hegemony once they realized the power they could wield. It looked like a slippery slope with no conceptual ledge in sight.
It’s not enough. Personal privacy has never been as fragile as it is today, and the significance and abuse of databases may well prove to be the most dangerous threat to freedom ever known. No despot in the history of man had such information available to him. That Paterson implicitly endorsed a stop & frisk policy that has subjected millions of completely innocent blacks and Hispanics to being manhandled by the police at will is a shame and a disgrace.
But at least it’s a step in the right direction, which is better than the alternative.
H/T Ed at Blawg Review, who really wants his DNA back.