Unfair bias has its grip on stop-and-frisk

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Here is some really easy math to chew over: Between January 2004 and June 2012, an estimated 4.4 million New Yorkers were stopped or detained by the New York Police Department under "reasonable suspicion" that a crime had been committed.

In 88 percent of those stops in which a citizen was frisked and interrogated for making "furtive movements" that aroused the suspicion of an officer, there was no crime committed beyond the routine mugging of the U.S. Constitution.

Six percent of those stops in New York over the years resulted in arrests, mostly for drug possession, with another 6 percent leading to summons. Weapons were found on only 1.5 percent of New Yorkers stopped and frisked. Minorities are disproportionately targeted, so that in the super-rare case when someone is actually caught packing heat, it is usually a black or Hispanic person.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin sided with a dozen plaintiffs who argued that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program violated their rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

The judge agreed with the plaintiffs that stop-and-frisk as practiced by the nation's largest and most diverse police force amounts to a wasteful and humiliating fishing expedition. Her judgment is borne out by the NYPD's own numbers indicating that most of the people stopped over eight years were minding their own business, yet somehow came under suspicion.

After castigating the NYPD for refusing to ensure that stop-and-frisk was applied constitutionally, Judge Scheindlin ordered the police department to modify its practices. She could see the reality of what the plaintiffs complained about quite clearly -- that the NYPD engaged in "indirect racial profiling by directing its commanders and officers to focus their stop activity on the 'right people.' "

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police Chief Ray Kelly, who is inexplicably on President Obama's short list to become the next director of Homeland Security, complained during interviews last week about "un-elected judges" unraveling the tenuous social fabric of New York with the unfair assessment and judgment of stop-and-frisk.

Addressing Mr. Bloomberg's stunning lack of self-awareness, John Oliver, substitute anchor of "The Daily Show," offered this response: "You think this program is being unfairly stopped and scrutinized even though it's done nothing wrong? I think I know millions of blacks and Latinos in this city who know exactly how you feel."

Meanwhile, every Democratic candidate seeking Mr. Bloomberg's open seat has sided with the judge and public opinion. For a brief second, even Mr. Bloomberg seemed to side with his critics when he told The New Yorker, "If I had a son who was stopped, I might feel differently about [stop-and-frisk], but nevertheless ..." It was a moment of total political candor that gave away the game.

Mr. Bloomberg's admission about his hypothetical son was reminiscent of those conservative Republicans who suddenly find the moral courage to embrace marriage equality once a child or loved one comes out of the closet. Empathy usually starts at home when it comes to reversing stupid and unfair social policies.

Amy Holmes, a staunch conservative who writes at The Blaze, Glenn Beck's news blog, said what few prominent nonlibertarian conservatives have been able to admit -- that stop-and-frisk is racially discriminatory. During an interview on MSNBC, Ms. Holmes used her own wealthy neighborhood as Exhibit A:

"We understand that from 'stop-and-frisk' the majority of arrests -- I think over 90 percent -- have to do with marijuana possession," Ms. Holmes said. "I live in the West Village in New York City, and there's no 'stop-and-frisk' policy there, and I could point to you 10 people who were smoking pot openly, and they didn't get arrested.

"So, I'm very concerned that 'stop-and-frisk' is targeting certain communities, people of color, in a disproportionate way," she said, "and I can tell you, as someone who lives in Manhattan, they could come and find crime in my neighborhood, but they don't because it's frankly where a lot of wealthy white people live."

Echoing "Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams' cheeky assertion that stop-and-frisk would be more effective if it were used on Wall Street, Ms. Holmes asked a really good question: "If you go down to New York University, why aren't those students being stopped and frisked?"

Hmm, could it be that NYU is the kind of place where Mr. Bloomberg's hypothetical son might hang out? Why tempt fate by introducing cops into a situation as potentially volatile as that? There's plenty of potheads to stop and frisk in Harlem.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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