This past Thursday, a federal appeals court overturned the controversial ruling of Judge Shira Scheidlin that declared the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional. Brought by the city, the ruling also issued a stay on the series of reforms that judge Scheindlin called for, including a third-party overseer of the practice, reforms to police training and supervision, and a test study using body-worn cameras on police officers in districts where the most stops occur.
The appellate judge argued that Scheindlin had violated court ethics by revealing a bias on the issue during interviews and statements given to outside media.
Both mayoral candidates weighed in on the recent ruling with Democratic candidate Bill DeBlasio condemning it and Republican nominee Joe Lhota literally cheering it on. Both have made it abundantly clear where they stand on the policy, and each accuse the other of race baiting and of course racism, respectively.
A shock to an already jolted city, this ruling came in the immediate wake of a racial scandal at famed upscale Madison Avenue shopping center Barneys New York, where two separate incidents involved young black shoppers being accosted by undercover police officers and questioned over their purchases. One, Trayon Christian, intends on bringing a lawsuit against the city for up to $5 million.
What is exceptionally frustrating about the issue is that in a city as diverse (read: non-white) and as liberal as New York, why are such practices and political opinions tolerated to such an extent if there is so much public outrage against it? The Police Department is more diverse than it has ever been. This issue has to be laid to rest at least somewhere in this country at some point. Is no one exhausted of fighting this battle in 2013? The Right likes to argue that the police are simply being ordered to target those that are most likely to break the law. Well, if we know where exactly law breakers like to congregate, and we are also spying on literally everyone, why is it that we need such a brutal ground force presence? Can’t the NSA work with local authorities to report illicit activity, or potentially harmful activity in a region? If so much data is being collected on the nation, why are we still the victims of shootings, thefts, murders, etc? (See: recent shooting at LAX.)
And if the Right would like to argue that stop-and-frisk has been keeping our city safe, then why not help us truly believe that by making the system as transparent as possible? Tell us who you are arresting and why, what besides skin tone gave you the impression that a crime was about to or has just been committed? It feels like a weird blend of “Minority Report” and “1984” all converging on the South Bronx.
Maybe we should be addressing slightly different issues, like, say, why a particular neighborhood has so much crime to begin with. Perhaps the race of its citizens has nothing to do with it. Possibly like the Somali pirates in “Captain Phillips,” socio-economic opportunities have become so few and far between for many, especially those who are affected by the equality gap in this country created by racial divides. As a result, many see petty crime as the only alternative, and the only connection your typical conservative politician or police commissioner can make is that those who are poor, desperate, and have the most to gain from committing crime and the least to lose share certain racial qualities, but they completely ignore the massive list of other, more pressing issues in their daily lives, like lack of access to a decent and free education, living wages, jobs, quality health care, not to mention affordable healthy food and housing. Those issues are much harder to address on a daily basis when you’re trying to keep the people safe from muggings and drug dealers.
But what if instead of police officers, we were sending teams of social workers into our down-on-their-luck communities, helping them cope, expanding our social safety net for them instead of simply going on an arresting frenzy? It ultimately costs the taxpayer more anyways to keep people in the penal system rather than provide them with basic services that would deter them from lives of crime. That argument could be expanded further to: if we helped the disadvantaged to become better, more productive members of society through services like health care, food stamps and higher education, wouldn’t they ultimately help to perpetuate a healthier overall society? So why aren’t we having that debate (see: Inequality For All documentary)? Why are we still having to defend the point that simply because a man is not white, he is not necessarily guilty of anything?
Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani is credited with cleaning up the city and reducing crime back in the ’90s partly by enforcing policies based on the Broken Windows Theory, which argued that petty crime and seemingly decrepit and blighted areas of the city beget more crime. If we come down harshly on first-time offenders and clean up the city from graffiti and broken windows, criminals will be deterred from reoffending or even breaking the law in the first place. But simply running around the city locking up everyone who “looks suspicious,” as the stop-and-frisk policy has devolved into, doesn’t remotely solve the underlying issues at all the way that Broken Windows seemingly did. Maybe if the city provided a better incentive to abide the law rather than break it, add more carrots and use less sticks, then the repercussions of the harsh policy won’t have to be felt by so many New Yorkers.
Yoni Weiss is a graphic designer & native New Yorker trying to make good use of his time.
[ Photo by Flickr user longislandwins ]