December 30, 2013
Mayor Bloomberg delivers final major address as mayor of New York City on Dec. 18. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Mayor Bloomberg delivers final major address as mayor of New York City on Dec. 18. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The “stop and frisk” debate in New York City always made me uncomfortable. Even though I have never had a run in with the law more serious than a speeding ticket, I knew in my bones that the complaints and concerns from African Americans and Latinos were real. On the other hand, as a policy adviser on Mayor Bloomberg’s first campaign, I knew the motivations of the men who employed the controversial tactic they inherited from Mayor Giuliani.

Working with candidate Bloomberg on his public-safety plan, I knew he took racial profiling very seriously. But his vehement reaction to challenges to the “stop and frisk” program threatened to undermine the good work Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly did to improve police-community relations in general and race relations in particular. As did his enraged reaction to Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling last summer that the way “stop and frisk” was being practiced by the NYPD violated the constitutional rights of blacks and Hispanics.

“I think we disproportionately stop whites too much. And minorities too little,” Bloomberg said in June as he explained that “it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murders.”

“There is just no question that Stop-Question-Frisk has saved countless lives,” Bloomberg said the day of  Scheindlin’s ruling in August. “And we know that most of the lives saved, based on the statistics, have been black and Hispanic young men.”

While both statements might be statistically correct, they were decidedly tone deaf. That last quote about lives saved took me all the way back to 1997, when then-Mayor Giuliani running for reelection was asked by a Washington Post reporter to respond to the criticism that he had not done enough for minorities during his first term. “They are alive. How about we start with that,” he said. “You can’t help people more directly than to save lives.” For black New Yorkers who felt under siege by Giuliani and the NYPD, that comment was as insulting as it was condescending.

A Bloomberg op-ed for The Post in August was so ferocious I couldn’t help but wonder if he thought I wrote the editorials that offended him. If so, he was mistaken. As mistaken as his inability to put the cold, hard numbers aside to consider how cold his defense of the NYPD’s use of “stop and frisk” sounded to those who felt racially profiled or those who felt the program had gone too far.

Bloomberg’s forceful reaction to the Scheindlin ruling struck me then as the mayor doing what New York City mayors traditionally do. When the NYPD is under attack, Hizzoner rallies around the cops. Giuliani turned this into an art form. There is also a tradition of mayors rhetorically beating up on judges who hand down rulings they don’t like. And then there’s the confident “You’ll see that I’m right!” attitude of all Big Apple mayors. If anything, this was Bloomberg’s default demeanor. From his decision to raise property taxes to help plug a massive budget deficit in his first year to his smoking ban in bars and restaurants to countless other decisions over the next 12 years, Bloomberg was right more often than not.

But I also believe Bloomberg was so defensive on the question of racial profiling because he felt he was being accused of something he found morally repugnant and took steps to prevent. As I wrote in the previous post, candidate Bloomberg made it a priority to change the adversarial relationship between communities of color and the police and City Hall, respectively. In his eight-page public safety plan, he specifically talked about addressing allegations of racial profiling. Ironically, the “stop and frisk” program was seen as a way to improve the NYPD’s relationship with minority New Yorkers.

While I do not believe the NYPD as a matter of policy is engaged is in this unjust practice, I do believe that the perception of racial profiling by the NYPD is equally destructive. We must combat that perception and ensure that it does not become reality.

As Mayor, I would continue the new “Stop-and-Frisk” procedures put in place by Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and designed to reduce the animosity between civilians and police…..

To further protect the NYPD against allegations of racial profiling and to further reassure the public, I support the bill recently passed by the City Council to require quarterly reporting of “Stop-and-Frisk” data, including the race and gender of those stopped.”

Eight contentious years under Giuliani and an aggressive police department with a roster of black and Latino men killed or abused by cops exacerbated racial tensions in New York City and left race relations in tatters. By changing the tone from City Hall and reappointing Kelly, who had good relationships in communities of color during his tenure under Mayor Dinkins (1990-1992), Bloomberg ushered in the best race relations in New York City in decades. The racial resentment that crackled on the city’s streets in the ’80s and ’90s is largely gone.

That’s not to say there still weren’t problems. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg signed a bill into law prohibiting racial profiling. But the lawsuit against the “stop and frisk” program showed that the racial-profiling perception battle had been lost and exposed an unacceptable grim reality faced by men of color in the Big Apple. As the Scheindlin ruling said, too many innocents were being stopped and multiple times in violation of their constitutional rights.

Targeting young black and Hispanic men for stops based on the alleged criminal conduct of other young black or Hispanic men violates bedrock principles of equality.

Let’s not forget the national debate into which Scheindlin’s ruling dropped. It came a month after the stunning July acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen who Zimmerman told police “looks like he’s up to no good.” Days after the verdict, President Obama discussed racial profiling in the most personal of terms from the White House press briefing room. And Scheindlin’s decision came three days after Bill de Blasio’s campaign released an ad by his son Dante saying, “He’s the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color.”

Yet as Jim Dwyer at the New York Times pointed out last month, by the time de Blasio announced he was running for mayor last January, the number of stops had begun a “drastic decline that has continued for most of the last two years.” Dwyer also revealed that in announcing Bill Bratton to succeed Kelly at One Police Plaza, de Blasio and Bratton “acknowledged that stop-and-frisk tactics, used legally and appropriately, were an essential tool for the police.”

That was an echo of the Scheindlin ruling that conveniently gets lost by both sides in the debate over her decision. How the stops were conducted was unconstitutional, but the practice of “stop and frisk” itself was permissible.

To be very clear: I am not ordering an end to the practice of stop and frisk. The purpose of the remedies addressed in this Opinion is to ensure that the practice is carried out in a manner that protects the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, while still providing much-needed police protection.

“Stop and frisk” is not the entirety of the crime-fighting tactics of the NYPD. But it is an essential part of it. When practiced judiciously, the practice doesn’t violate the constitutional rights of the people they are sworn to protect. In an interview with Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, Bratton supports it as part of the broken windows theory that he implemented to great effect during the first two years of the Giuliani administration.

“Stop-and-frisk is such a basic tool of policing. It’s one of the most fundamental practices in American policing. If cops are not doing stop-and-frisk, they are not doing their jobs. It is a basic, fundamental tool of police work in the whole country. If you do away with stop-and-frisk, this city will go down the chute as fast as anything you can imagine.

“….You have to take action against minor offenses. It has to be done respectfully, and it has to be done consistently, as Kelly has articulated, time and again. But it has to be done.”

No one wants to see the city go back to the old days of rampant crime. No one wants to see the police needlessly stopping African American and Hispanic men because they fit some vague description of a perpetrator of an offense or crime they didn’t commit. A balance appears to have been restored in the final years of Bloomberg’s third and final term. Come Jan. 1, it will be up to Bratton and Mayor-elect de Blasio to maintain it.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.