June 8, 2012

NEW YORK MAYOR Michael Bloomberg (I) says that his city has become “the safest big city in the country — by far” and that one reason is its stop-and-frisk policy, which he says has saved 5,600 lives in the past decade. But the policy also undeniably imposes on thousands of innocent people, a disproportionate share of whom are young, male and minority. Is there a way to lessen the noxious effect while preserving the crime-fighting value claimed by Mr. Bloomberg?

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), young black and Latino men between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 42 percent of all people stopped last year, though they comprise only 4.7 percent of the city’s population. Regardless of age, of the nearly 700,000 total people stopped in 2011, about 87 percent were either black or Latino, a percentage more or less consistent through the last decade. The cards that NYPD officers are encouraged (but not required) to distribute after these encounters state that a “number of factors, alone or taken together” can “raise a police officer’s suspicion to a level where he or she may lawfully stop, detain, question and even frisk” someone. In practice, there’s a big overlap between race and these “factors.”

The figures have understandably elicited condemnation. After a federal judge criticized stop-and-frisk’s “troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights” last month, even the policy’s most stalwart defenders were forced to concede that something is wrong. New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly pledged to re-emphasize NYPD’s existing ban on racial profiling, pay more attention to the forms that officers fill out after each confrontation, and look more critically at officers who draw complaints. But if the only “reforms” implemented are a restatement or even a re-emphasis of existing policy, the racial disparity is likely to endure.

A potentially useful reform is suggested by a measure proposed in France last week, where there’s been similar criticism that people of color (in France, usually immigrants or their offspring) are the usual suspects. The policy would require officers to issue receipts that include their own identification to those they stop. Police might think twice about why they select certain people, and treat those they do stop with more respect. Subjects of searches would have documentation — useful should they feel their rights had been compromised. The practice could tilt the balance of power a tad, restoring some dignity to innocent citizens without infringing on police power.

Right now in New York, there are few checks on how police implement the policy. Citizens have taken matters into their own hands with such tools as an NYCLU mobile app, released this week, which allows bystanders to record and document stop-and-frisks they witness. Innovations like these may help, but the police themselves should do more to promote accountability. Issuing receipts would be a good place to start.