Thoroughly Uncontroversial Policing

Two cops approached 23-year-old Charlie Vazquez in the Bronx.

The officers were responding to a 911 call for a person with a gun about 8 p.m. near E. 187th St. and Beaumont Ave. in Belmont.

When Officers Alejandra Jacobs and Robert Holmes arrived, they found Charlie Vasquez, 23, of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, sitting on the stoop of an apartment building, police said.

He matched the description from the 911 call “to a T,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said at a late-night news conference. “Within seconds, they are involved in a gun battle,” he said.

The two cops were shot, which Mayor-Elect Eric Adams uses as an example of “stop and frisk” done right. Was it?

The threat was neutralized. One more gun off the street. One more blow against the bad guys.

Yet there are some in our city who would say these officers should never have confronted Vasquez, that he never should have been stopped and questioned.

The “some” Adams refers to are opponents of the unconstitutional police tactic of “stop & frisk,” the baseless tossing of random people to search for guns, and whatever else turns up, which coincidentally tends to only happen in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. As Scott Shackford notes, what happened with Vazquez, resulting in two cops shot and one gun taken off the street, has nothing to do with stop & frisk.

This is thoroughly uncontroversial policing. (Or most of it is. One of the officers might have accidentally shot the other during the confrontation.) Most people across the political spectrum want the cops to investigate a potentially dangerous person who may be up to criminal activity. The problem, as Adams well knows, is what the police actually end up doing. This isn’t what “stop and frisk” looked like in New York City at all.

In this instance, the police were responding to a specific call with a specific description, and their approach to Vazquez wasn’t to grab him and throw him against a wall, but ask him to show his hands based upon the articulable suspicion that he might possess a gun. While it’s almost impossible to say anything about policing these days is uncontroversial, as the mere existence of police is itself controversial, this interaction was about as clearly justified as it gets.

So why on earth is Adams attempting to use a case where a man was not even frisked—a case where the guy actually shot at police—as an example of some sort of “proper” stop and frisk? Because it’s all about the guns. Adams, just like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is big on gun control. He is attempting to convince New Yorkers that some form of stop-and-frisk policy will be needed to keep the community safe from armed criminals.

The argument that stop & frisk, the tactic, works isn’t hard to make. Toss enough people and you’re bound to eventually find someone with a gun or other contraband that makes it look effective, particularly when you don’t consider the rest of the 700,000 people a year tossed who were just people minding their own business, doing nothing wrong, tossed for the hell of it.

But just as the Vazquez stop had nothing to do with stop & frisk, the tactic, neither does Adams’ conflation of the tactic with a Terry stop.

In fact, as American courts have affirmed over many years, stop, question and frisk is a perfectly legal, appropriate and constitutional tool, when used smartly, as opposed to indiscriminately against hundreds of thousands of young Black and Brown men, as it was for years in New York City. Not only that, but it is a necessary tool, whereby police approach someone who fits a witness description or otherwise appears to be carrying an illegal weapon.

If a cop has articulable suspicion that an individual is committing a crime, then it is legal, although “perfectly” isn’t a characterization that should ever be used so glibly, to stop and question a person. As for frisk, that requires separate articulable suspicion to believe that the person is armed and poses a threat, upon which a cop can frisk for weapons for his own protection.

But this isn’t some general law enforcement “tool,” but a very specific authorization requiring more than some feeling that a dude is up to no good. And therein lies the difference. Just because the NYPD stole the language of constitutional stop and frisk and slapped it on the unconstitutional tactic of stop & frisk (see how I use an ampersand to distinguish the law from the tactic?) does not mean they are the same thing, or even remotely related.

The question was never whether stop, question and frisk should be allowed; it was how it should be done. Those who claimed it should be outlawed entirely reduced a nuanced issue to an either-or argument, and unwisely answered it with a blanket ban.

As if this isn’t enough meaningless gibberish, Adams doubles down.

Right now — whether the fighting is about stop, question and frisk, defund the police or bail reform — we are having the wrong arguments.

The question should not be whether or not police are allowed to confront suspects; it should be about how we train them. The question should not be whether we have police; it should be how we use them. The question should not be whether judges should have the ability to protect New Yorkers from violent offenders; it should be how we let them.

If what Adams is arguing is that they need to train police to act in accordance with, as opposed to defiance of, constitutional rights, great, if that’s not how they train them now. But this op-ed is for the benefit of the public, to not only get them off the dumb “defund”  kick, but get them back on board with the tactic of stop & frisk by conflating it with lawful stop and frisk and using an example having nothing to do with the tactic to appeal to people’s emotions.

If his point was that Terry stops upon articulable suspicion are constitutional, but that what the NYPD was doing with its tactic of stop & frisk was something very different and unconstitutional, then it would be “thoroughly uncontroversial policing.” But if that were Adams’ point, he would have said so. He didn’t.

5 thoughts on “Thoroughly Uncontroversial Policing

  1. Mike V.

    I couldn’t tell if they had body worn cameras which might provide a different perspective, but it looked to me like the female officers shot her partner, maybe more than once. That video is a huge training tool if they will use it to correct poor training.

  2. B. McLeod

    Well, you know. Something must be done. Now that he is Mayor-elect, Adams has to talk about what that is. Not always intelligible, it would seem.

  3. Skink

    You expect him to know the difference between stops and Terry stops? He was just a subway cop and NYPD captain. You can’t expect him to know that stuff. Hell, I don’t expect judges to know that–it’s the first rule of trial lawyerin’: don’t expect the judge to know anything about the law.

    Since the TT string went bizarre and this here banquet room is so silent, I take leave for a story.

    It was a sunny swamp day in 2003. A hearing was set before a brand-new Southern District Swamp magistrate judge–Ted Klein. I didn’t know him because he was an AUSA and CDL and I was never neither. I defended a bad arrest, beat-em-up case. Since the case came to me, the suspect must have been dead, so maybe it was a little more than a mere beat-em-up. I made my pitch for dismissal of the complaint:

    Skink: I don’t know how much you know about this area of law, so stop me if I get too basic.

    Mag Ted: Well, Skink, I argued for the respondent in Florida v. Royer in the Supreme Court of the United States. Do I qualify?

    I never made that mistake again. Judge, cop, criminal, I make sure I know to whom I speak my gibberish. Allen needs to learn the same lesson. He was a boss. He knows the difference. Playing dumb to make people dumber makes him an asshole.

    1. SHG Post author

      The TT could have gone far worse. I’m frankly impressed at how well it’s going.

      I had a similar experience before Judge Kimba Wood in SDNY, where she ripped me a new asshole telling me they didn’t make her a federal judge because she was a blithering idiot. I resisted the impulse to ask for a cite. Instead, I reminded her that it was my job to argue the law and I would have been remiss in my duty to the client to assume otherwise. Ironically, it was an IAC motion against another lawyer.

      As for Adams, I have no clue if he knows or doesn’t, but if he’s going to write an op-ed designed to make people stupider, the least he can do is have someone look it up for him before he spews gibberish to sell his snake oil.

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