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Editorial: Stop and Frisk; Reforms Are Needed in New York

New York City, home to more than 8 million people, is the nation’s largest metropolitan area. It’s also America’s safest big city.

Last year, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) recorded 419 homicides, nearly a 20 percent decrease from the year before and the lowest rate per 100,000 residents since the department began keeping reliable tallies in 1963. If New York had the same homicide rate as the District of Columbia, it would be investigating 800 more murder cases per annum; if it had Detroit’s statistics, nearly 4,000 more New Yorkers would be murdered every year. Without question, the Big Apple is doing something right.

Officials say that a large part of that something is its “stop and frisk” policy, under which officers can stop and search anyone on the street they deem to be suspicious. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police chief, Raymond Kelly, say the procedure has saved upwards of 5,000 lives in the past 10 years. “New York has never been safer in its modern era,” the mayor says.

The policy is controversial, though, and the subject of a federal class action lawsuit because the vast majority of those stopped are young men of color. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, 87 percent of those stopped in 2012 were black or Latino, a figure more or less consistent throughout the last decade. This tends to hold true even in predominately white, affluent neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Park Slope, where blacks and Latinos make up barely a quarter of the population but nearly 80 percent of stops, at least in 2011.

The racial disparity is a problem that can’t be ignored. Last week, the New York City Council approved a pair of bills known together as the Community Safety Act. The first would create an inspector general to supervise NYPD’s activities; the second would create avenues for citizens to sue NYPD in state court not only for cases of individual bias but also against policies without clear law enforcement components that have a disproportionate impact on protected groups, such as racial minorities. Bloomberg opposes both measures.

In our view, he should be more open to some reform, especially if he wants his policies to persist after a new mayor is elected in November. He is correct to oppose the council’s measure making it easier to bring lawsuits. Although it does not allow easy recovery of monetary judgments, it could lead to an “avalanche of new lawsuits against police action” that would impede law enforcement, as the mayor’s office argues. But having an inspector general makes sense; and so would requiring officers to give receipts with identifying information to those whom they stop. Without hurting crime-fighting, such a measure could hold officers accountable and provide those stopped with documentation should they feel they were unfairly profiled.

An undue burden on minority communities shouldn’t have to be a necessary evil of a safe city, and America’s largest city should take some action to make sure that isn’t the case.

The Washington Post