The recording played in Judge Shira Scheindlin’s courtroom about “the right people” to stop and frisk made as much of an impact as one would expect, which in turn meant that it had to be scrutinized for whether it was one cop’s words, easily subject to misapprehension, proof of racism or, well, truth. Enter the Times’ Public Editor.
But one article – a Page 1 story last Friday by Joseph Goldstein – has caused a firestorm of criticism. It has drawn sharp and sustained protests from the Police Department and its legal department, and tough words from sources as diverse as the frequent police critic Leonard Levitt, a former Newsday columnist who writes the NYPD Confidential blog, and Heather Mac Donald, who frequently takes the Police Department’s point of view, writing in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute.
Her assessment: The Times’s article “has twisted the taped conversation into a poisonous indictment of the police.”
This meta-criticism begins from a curious place, one where a person has never tasted the dirty sidewalks of 168th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue for not obeying a cop’s command to stop and put your hands against the wall fast enough. Whether Heather MacDonald has ever done more than see uptown Manhattan through the window of a taxi is unknown, but no one who lives up there needed a taped conversation to tell them the risks they took every time they walked out of their homes.
There is a trial going on, and at trial, lawyers introduce evidence. Much of it will be testimony, but with millions of young black and Hispanic men available to tell of their experiences, it gets a bit redundant after a while. And so this tape recording of a police supervisor explaining to a beat cop that his job is to roust the “right people” matters.
Not because it proves the NYPD is racist. The pundits miss the point. What proves that stop & frisk is a racist tactic is that it’s used almost exclusively against young black and Hispanic men. The tape bolsters the fact that millions of New Yorkers know and can testify to.
Former newspaper writer and police critic, Leonard Levitt, is similarly dubious about the tape.
Mr. Levitt, for one, does not think it comes close. He wrote on his blog: “If federal judge Shira Scheindlin concludes that the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk is a racist policy she’ll need more proof than last week’s testimony of the 40th precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack.”
Well, of course. But there was “more proof,” even before the tape, and there will be more proof after. And after that. Plus, the issue isn’t so much whether Stop & Frisk is racist, but unconstitutional, though the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
But then Levitt goes to a very odd place of his own, one reflecting a curious internal conflict.
“The way The Times handled it just seemed unfair to McCormack,” he said, given that “so much of the violent crime in the city is committed by young, black males. You can yell and scream about the impropriety of what he said, but it’s true. And the victims are very often black, too.”
Mr. Levitt also noted that Inspector McCormack emphasizes – on the recording — that “99 percent of the people in this community are great, hardworking people, who deserve to walk to the train, walk to their car, walk to the store,” without becoming crime victims.”
We’ve been down this path too many times before to take another stroll in the debate over whether blacks have a greater propensity to commit crime. It’s not relevant, not to the issue of whether black and Hispanic youths are the “right people” or whether blacks are just inherently more criminal. The statistics speak for themselves :
In 2010, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 601,285 times.
518,849 were totally innocent (86 percent).
315,083 were black (54 percent).
189,326 were Latino (33 percent).
54,810 were white (9 percent).
295,902 were aged 14-24 (49 percent).
In 2011, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 685,724 times.
605,328 were totally innocent (88 percent).
350,743 were black (53 percent).
223,740 were Latino (34 percent).
61,805 were white (9 percent).
341,581 were aged 14-24 (51 percent).
In 2012, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 533,042 times
473,300 were totally innocent (89 percent).
286,684 were black (55 percent).
166,212 were Latino (32 percent).
50,615 were white (10 percent).
The Constitution prohibits the police from stopping a person, violating their constitutional right to be left alone, unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe the person is, was or is about to commit a crime. Whether the individual is black, Hispanic or white, there must still be a lawful basis for the stop.
The numbers, collected by the NYPD so as to negate any suggestion that someone else is fudging them, show that whatever basis the police are using to contend the authority to stop, it’s not working. The numbers show that it’s not working for blacks. It’s not working for Latinos. It’s not working for New Yorkers. And the numbers show that there are grossly disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics being stopped.
So one supervisor, in the course of expressing his general devotion to the community, calls black and Hispanic youths “the right people.” It’s not a poisonous indictment of the NYPD. The numbers are a poisonous indictment of the NYPD. The tape recording of Inspector McCormack is just more evidence of what every 17-year-old black kid already knows: it’s no fun to be thrown against a wall and told to empty your pockets on the way home from school. It makes for a bad day.
How is it possible that so many young men, black and Hispanic, know the risks they take by just walking down the street while so many white people debate the merit of a single tape, as if there weren’t more than 533,000 New Yorkers last year, 89% innocent of any wrongdoing, 87% black and Hispanic, who had a worse day than they did?