Candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, Cy Vance, Jr., was given a platform on the Huffington Post to set out his views on dealing with racial disparities in police interactions with citizens on the street.
It is no secret that African-Americans and Latinos are stopped and frisked disproportionately by the police.
This statement, on its face, is significant. While seemingly obvious, it is an acknowledgment that no matter how hard the rest of society tries to put racial prejudice behind us, it remains a hard, cold reality when it comes to policing.
According to the Civil Liberties Union, in 2007, the NYPD stopped about 469,000 New Yorkers, which equals about 1,300 people a day. Of these 469,000, 88 percent were not charged. African-Americans, who represent 25 percent of the City’s population, represent over 50 percent of those stopped; 30 percent of those stopped were Latino. Non-Latino Whites, who make up about 35 percent of the city’s population, only represent 11 percent of those stopped. In both 2006 and 2007 African Americans and Latinos made up over 90 percent of those stopped.
Lest anyone challenge these numbers on the basis of their being compiled by the NYCLU, it was Vance’s choice to adopt these figures in his post. I will defer to his decision, and accept them as accurate. They tell an appalling story, that 88% of those people subject to a stop and frisk are not charged with any wrong. That’s a monumental number.
Consider, for a moment, what this means. Police officers make the decision to take a person, walking down the street minding his own business, seize him (in the legal sense of preventing him from continuing on his way unimpeded) and then place their hands on his body to determine whether he has anything that would lead them to arrest him. This could include a weapon, or drugs, or stolen property. But whatever causes the police officers to make the decision to seize and touch a citizen, they are wrong 88% of the time. That’s an extraordinary number of innocent, law-abiding citizens who are being denied their right to walk down the street unmolested by the police.
Who are these people being hassled by the cops? In New York City, 90% of them are black and Hispanic. The reason I’ve framed the story this way is to prevent those who would immediately resort to the argument that it’s because blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be criminals from taking comfort in their bias. Since 88% of these people are not charged with any crime, there is no blame to be placed on blacks and Hispanics for just being there when a cop feels compelled to give them a toss.
Under New York law, before a police officer can lawfully stop and frisk an individual, he must have an objectively reasonable belief that the person has committed, is committing or will commit a crime. It’s less than probable cause, which is required for arrest, and greater than a suspicion that “criminal activity is afoot,” justifying the common law right of inquiry. A stop and frisk is a significant intrusion on the sanctity of the person.
To Vance’s credit, he acknowledges the existence of a very serious extant problem with the police, both in the fact that police are engaging in rampant constitutional violations generally, and that these violations are having a grossly disproportionate impact on blacks and Hispanics. Of course, this does little to stop the assistants in the New York County District Attorney’s office from enabling the fabrication of constitutionally acceptable excuses for unlawful police conduct. So much for that oath of protecting and defending the Constitution, eh?
The current means of addressing this problem is to hand out palm cards. I wouldn’t kid you about this. After police engage in rampant violations of constitutional rights, the problem is smoothed over for the 88% of those not charged by giving them a card.
The NYPD recently began a pilot program in three precincts in which officers give an explanatory “palm card” to those they stop and frisk. The card serves to inform suspects why they’re being stopped and of their rights.
I’m not sure what these cards say, but I doubt that they explain, “You were stopped and frisked because you are black or Hispanic, and we suspect all of you to be criminals. Better safe than sorry.”
While Vance states that these palm cards are “a positive step in the right direction” (as opposed to a positive step in the wrong direction?), he acknowledges that they are inadequate to deal with the problem.
The Manhattan DA must work closely with the NYPD. No relationship is more important — or more complex — than the relationship between the DA’s office and the NYPD. The two offices work closely together on thousands of cases, incidents and issues every year. Yet, the DA provides a critical oversight role for the public in regard to the NYPD. The DA prosecutes NYPD officers when they go over the line — whenever they go over the line.
This is where things get a bit fuzzy for me. Does this mean that Cy Vance plans to start prosecuting police officers for engaging in systemic violations of the constitutional rights of black and Hispanic citizens, those 88% of the 90% of all those stopped and frisked? He states that he wants to put ADAs closer to the people, in the neighborhoods where these New Yorkers live, work, get frisked. But is that to make them closer to the people? Will his ADAs remain the child brigade of the Police Department, or will they be the voice of the 88% of New Yorkers whose constitutional right to be left alone is subject to the whim of any cop with an attitude?
In a courtroom, the players often find themselves dealing with a fantastic scenarios constructed for the purpose of overcoming constitutional limitations on what police are permitted to do in their efforts to stop crime. But the only ones who make it to the courtroom are the 12% of individuals subject to stop and frisk who are charged with an offense as a result. The other 88% simply disappear into the mist, happy to be allowed to go on their way after this baseless assault on their dignity. The system never hears from them again. No one is held accountable. It’s as if it never happened.
Will Cy Vance speak for the 88%? They too are the victims of a terrible wrong.