Cops vs. Civil Liberties? It shouldn’t be.
With everything that’s been making headlines this week, there certainly isn’t a shortage of things to write about. Heck, it takes me almost three hours each morning just to get through the barrage of news articles that find their way into my email and the topics cover everything from government malfeasance to the hyper-partisan Congressional environment through miscellaneous popular interest items. But there was one headline of which I’m betting the vast majority of you are unaware.
The other night, the city council in New York City voted to effectively end the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” program. They took this action for three reasons, two of which are political (the Council Speaker, once considered a shoo-in in the upcoming Mayoral election, is suddenly trailing human joke Anthony Weiner and the Justice Department is opening a probe on the practice) and one fiscal (the city just lost a lawsuit from the NYCLU). Current mayor, Michael “Mao” Bloomberg has already threatened to veto the new legislation – but in NYC, the Council can override a mayor’s veto and they have the votes to do so.
The stop-and-frisk program is a wonderful example of what happens when what seems like a reasonable idea at one time can later morph into a heinous overreach of government authority. The roots of the program are found in former Mayor David Dinkins’ “Clean Halls” program. That program aimed to reduce crime in NYC’s infamous public housing projects by giving police expanded to authority to stop anyone found in the buildings or grounds and ask for ID; if the person stopped couldn’t prove they lived there, they were arrested for trespassing and escorted away. It was an admirable effort that worked reasonably well in removing trespassers and also found more than a few fugitives.
It was so successful that Mayor Mike expanded it to all public spaces. That led to the idea that the police could catch even more bad guys and maybe even prevent crimes by allowing the police to not only randomly stop people, but check them for contraband. This was all premised on the idea that the police would have reasonable cause before accosting ordinary folks and searching them.
Has the program actually reduced street crime? The NYPD attest that it has, pointing to the reduction in violent crimes since 2002, when the program began (from about one violent crime per 44 residents) to the present day one per 76. But nationally, there has also been a marked reduction in violent crime during the same period: from one per 320 Americans to one per 480. It’s just a cursory examination of the numbers, but it may be that the national reduction in violence is as much responsible for New York’s drop in crime rate as the stop-and-frisk program.
To further damn the program, the NYPD’s statistics show that the program may have been more trouble than it was worth. It was found during the NYCLU case that the stop-and-frisk policy is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, despite the city’s claim that officers were only allowed to stop people who presented with a reasonable expectation that they were involved in some type of crime. Yet, the city’s own data show that although some 4.4 million stops were made, only 6.26% resulted in an arrest and another 6.25% resulted in a summons issued. Those are pretty pitiful results, especially when compared with the fact that over 28% of the incidents resulted in police using force to effect the stop.
So why put the program in effect in the first place – and why keep it going for more than a decade, when there is no discernible proof that it served it’s intended purpose? The answer to the first part is simple enough; New Yorker’s love their city – but they hate the high crime rate. To turn on the evening news or pick up a copy of the New York Post is to be bombarded with lurid tales of rape, murder, muggings and general mayhem. Although they’ll never admit it, most live in constant fear of being assaulted and with a reason. Those crime statistics still paint a pretty grim picture; a picture of a city whose crime rate is nearly 6 times worse than the national average. And as I’ve discussed before, where people are afraid, they’re also willing to cede to the government their rights. New Yorkers are especially axiomatic of this “nanny state” mentality. When they feel threatened they demand the government do something, anything, regardless if rights get trampled in the process – because, after all, it’s the other guy’s rights being trampled. It is, in short, the same mentality that allowed dictators like Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin to ruthlessly pursue their bloodthirsty agendas.
As to why it took a class action lawsuit and the threat of federal intervention to bring it to an end, one only has to look at the cottage industries that grew and depend on stop-and-frisk. The mayor, who at one time harbored Presidential aspirations, became synonymous with both this civil rights violation and by crusading against the Second Amendment rights of his subjects (as well as the evils of tobacco, carbonated beverages and trans-fats). He routinely uses the number of weapons seized during the stops-and-frisk as evidence that his anti-gun crusade would work, if only the rest of the country would follow his lead. There is NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, whose career depends on keeping those crime stats dropping and can hardly walk away from the program he most credits for the decline in violent crime. There are the rank-and-file officers, who after decades of ridicule and abuse by the citizenry, have found themselves for the past 12 years in a position of absolute authority. After all, who’s going to argue with a NYC cop who has the ability to stop you, detain you and search you anytime he wants? There are surely others, as well; like all major operations that are rooted in skirting existing law, corruption certainly follows.
The lesson that I wish New Yorkers (and everyone else) would take away from this episode in their history is this: even trying to exchange their freedoms for their safety was an abysmal failure; their crime rate is still far higher than people who live elsewhere. It is proof that liberty is not a currency that can purchase safety.