New Yorks 20-year reprieve from debilitating violence may well be over. Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the New York Police Department has been willfully targeting blacks and Hispanics for unlawful stop, question, and frisks based on their skin color alone, in violation of the Constitution. She appointed a federal monitor to oversee the department and to develop new policies to end its allegedly biased policing practices. If the monitor adopts Judge Scheindlins definition of unconstitutional policing, its not too soon for New Yorkers to start looking into relocation plans.
The key part of Scheindlins ruling is her discussion of the stops performed by one of the NYPDs hardest-working members. Over a three-month period in 2009, the high-crime Fort Greene area of Brooklyn had seen a spate of robberies, burglaries, and gun violence. The robbery victims described their assailants as four to five black males between the ages of 14 and 19; the burglary victims reported the suspect as a Hispanic male in his thirties between five foot eight and five foot nine; and the shooting suspect was described as a black male in his twenties. During that three-month period, Officer Edgar Gonzalez of Brooklyns 88th Precinct conducted 134 stops, 128 of which involved black or Hispanic subjects. That stop ratio is consistent not only with the specific crime patterns then afflicting Fort Greene, but also with the overall crime rate in Gonzalezs precinct. Blacks and Hispanics commit nearly 99 percent of all violent crime in the 88th Precinct and over 93 percent of all crime. In terms of sheer volume, few officers come anywhere close to Gonzalezs absolute number of stops. (The allegedly draconian stop quotas about which the plaintiffs attorneys and a few underperforming cops complained during the trial set roughly two stops per month as a performance goal for officers.)
Scheindlin, however, apparently believes that population ratios are the proper benchmark for measuring the legality of stop activity. She points out that Gonzalezs racial stop rate far exceeds the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in the local population (60 percent). In other words, though whites and Asians commit less than 1 percent of violent crime in the 88th Precinct and less than 6 percent of all crime, they should make up 40 percent of all stops—to match their representation in the local population. Never mind that the suspect descriptions that Gonzalez was given identified blacks and Hispanics as the robbery, burglary, and shooting suspects. To avoid an accusation of racial profiling, he should have stopped whites and Asians for crimes committed—according to their victims—exclusively by blacks and Hispanics.
Of course, just because crime victims identify blacks and Hispanics as their assailants doesnt mean that race should be the primary determinant of who gets stopped —and there is no indication that it is. Thousands of blacks and Hispanics live in Fort Greene; Gonzalez stopped only a small proportion of them, basing his stops on their behavior and local crime information—for example, if they appeared to be casing a victim or burglary target at a time of day and location consistent with the current crime patterns. But it is preposterous to maintain, as Scheindlin does, that when race is included in a suspects description for a particular set of crimes, however generalized, it may not form the outer parameter of who gets stopped for those crimes.
The rest of Scheindlins opinion is equally blind to the realities of New York crime and policing. She shows little understanding of what it means to live in a high-crime neighborhood, where youths congregating on the corner can be the prelude to gun violence or a street rampage. She has accepted at face value the most far-fetched evidence against the NYPD, such as State Senator Eric Adamss absurd and uncorroborated accusations against Commissioner Ray Kelly. She has potentially restricted the NYPDs ability to monitor the performance of its commanders and officers and to make sure that they are actually working to keep the city safe.
The result is not only an insult to the most effective, professionally run police department in the country. It may also signal the end of the freedom from fear that New Yorks most vulnerable residents have enjoyed for two decades.