Sure, there were other pressing matters requiring New York City’s attention. Like crafting an effective law that authorized people to make up their own words and titles, and mandating that other people use them upon pain of death. But then, how hard was it to put body cams on a thousand cops?
Three years have passed since a Federal District Court ruled that New York City’s stop-and-frisk program violated constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure and discriminated against minority citizens, who were disproportionately and unjustifiably singled out for stops. A court-ordered reform process — overseen by an independent monitor — is off to a promising start. But some of the thorniest and most contentious issues lie ahead.
Three years? And this is “a good start”?
In 2011, at the height of the program, the police stopped people on the streets an astonishing 685,000 times — up from just 97,000 a decade earlier. In practical terms, this meant that individuals in heavily policed neighborhoods could be stopped on the street without cause multiple times within a given year.
Or multiple times a day. Or week. Or until they ended up dead. The police didn’t just stop people. They didn’t just stop people of color. They stopped a particular sub-demographic, young black and Hispanic men. When you do the math, it gets worse.
A statistical study of nearly 4.5 million stops produced at trial showed that only 6 percent of stops resulted in arrests and 6 percent resulted in summonses — which meant that 88 percent of the people stopped had been doing nothing wrong.
Moreover, in about 83 percent of the cases, the person stopped was black or Hispanic, even though the two groups accounted for just over half the population.
So what part of this is “off to a good start”?
The department issued detailed guidance to its officers explaining how and when stops, frisks and searches can be legally conducted. New forms require officers to clearly articulate their reasons for conducting a stop, and especially for a frisk. Supervisors will now be required to review the forms to make sure the officer’s explanation for stopping and frisking the person meets constitutional standards.
Three years later and . . . they came up with new forms that require cops to “clearly articulate their reasons”? By that, you mean they got rid of the UF 250 check box form and now require the cop to write his excuse on a line? Is that all you got?
The court has also approved elements of a new training system designed to drive home the new policies. At some point down the line, as the court noted, the department will need to create a disciplinary system for dealing with officers who willfully conduct illegal stops and searches.
So there is no “new training program” happening, but one is approved. As is the epiphany that “at some point down the line,” they need to figure out how to deal with the failure that will inevitably follow. How many
years decades does “some point down the line” mean?
Well, let’s accept the premise that after a decade of tossing kids for kicks, it’s hard to change the cop culture to one of acknowledging, if not quite respecting, constitutional rights. That was, of course, more aspirational than practical. But what about the body cams?
A one-year pilot project requiring about 1,000 officers in 20 precincts to wear body cameras will begin soon. This experiment is expected to show whether officers or civilians behave differently in street encounters when aware that they are being filmed.
Three years later, a one-year pilot program is expected to “begin soon,” in which the word “soon” means no one has clue when. While body cams were kinda like flying cars when the Floyd case avoided the wheel and was sent out to Shira Scheindlin as a related case, they have since become ubiquitous. Police departments across the country use them, much to their benefit, as it shows cops doing right as well as wrong. No, it’s not perfect, and no one with half a brain ever believed they would be a panacea, but their virtue has been proven.
And three years later, we’re talking about how an experiment will eventually begin.
There are a great many voices on criminal justice issues who look to official mechanisms to fix problems. They believe. They believe that government officials mean well. They believe that committees and negotiations and compromises are the best method of addressing problems. They believe in the good faith of well-intended people to achieve goals. And they believe it takes time to accomplish these things.
Nowhere in the New York Times’ chronicle of Floyd’s good start is there a mention of how many young black and Hispanic men are being tossed against walls these days. How many were frisked last Tuesday? Did you ask them if they minded forfeiting their constitutional right to be left alone so that we could call this a good start, even though not a single thing has been accomplished? Oh wait, my bad. There is a new form.
It’s not that Judge Scheindlin’s order was inadequate in some way. She ordered what she ordered. And then had the case ripped from her hands when it came time to sit on the slow, very New York, response. Is Peter Zimroth, former prosecutor and New York City Corporation Counsel, moving along with lightning speed to protect the constitutional rights of New Yorkers from the cops? In the world of guys like Pete, he’s the closest thing to The Flash. These are not people who act without officiousness.
But as to the guys, the black and Hispanic young men who can’t walk down the street, walk to school, walk to their job, walk to a bar, walk to a drug deal, without some cop tossing them for kicks, are they as impressed as the New York Times with this “good start”?
What isn’t mentioned here is that the primary claim to fame of the stop & frisk program was to get guns off the street. It sucked at accomplishing this task, but there was always a wink and nod that a few guys would have to take one for the team, give up their constitutional right to walk the street without being ordered to empty their pockets or lie on a New York City sidewalk (which is not always as sanitary as one might think) so that the nice folks on Sutton Place wouldn’t have to live in fear of gun violence.
So if it takes a few more years, a decade or two maybe, before any of these reforms kick in, while the cops search black and Hispanic guys for guns, that’s cool. After all, it’s a good start, and isn’t that really the best we can expect?