On August 22, the New York City Council took the final step toward enacting the Community Safety Act (CSA), overriding Mayor Bloomberg's recent veto and striking a blow against stop-and-frisk and other discriminatory NYPD tactics. This is more than a win for those who have fought hardest for the CSA. It's a victory for everyone who wants smarter and more effective policing -- in NYC and beyond.
In June, the Council approved two CSA measures: the "End NYPD Discriminatory Profiling Bill," which will expand and strengthen the ban on bias-based policing and the "NYPD Oversight Act," which will create a new Inspector General to provide independent oversight of the Department. Despite the Mayor's rejection of the bills and weeks of aggressive advocacy by the administration and its surrogates, the Council re-affirmed its decision recently.
The hard-won victory is due to the tireless efforts of Communities United for Police Reform -- a coalition of base-building, legal and policy groups in the City -- their allies in the Council and the countless New Yorkers who raised their voices in opposition to discriminatory policing. It also amounts to a repudiation of a set of policies and practices that the Bloomberg administration has vehemently defended, even in the face of statistical evidence undermining their claims and growing concern among members of the public.
The basic facts are undisputed. Under Mayor Bloomberg, NYPD officers have made over 4 million stops on the streets of the city. Over 80 percent of those stops have targeted black or Latino New Yorkers. And in nearly 9 out of 10 cases, there has been no accusation of wrong-doing -- no arrest was made and no citation was issued. Where the Mayor and Commissioner Kelly have set themselves against the opinion of growing numbers of New Yorkers is on the legality of these stops. Both Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have maintained that the city's use of stop-and-frisk is consistent with what the law requires and that these stops are an essential means of keeping the city safe. Advocates, meanwhile, have challenged both the constitutionality and the effectiveness of these stops, arguing that they are neither responsible for the decline in the city's crime rates nor particularly effective at removing weapons from the city's streets. Just over a week ago, federal judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, agreed, declaring the NYPD's racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional in her decision in Floyd v. City of NY.
The sheer volume of stops conducted, the magnitude of the city's investment in these tactics and the intensity of Mayor Bloomberg's commitment to them have, unfortunately, established New York City as a poster child for discriminatory policing. And to some degree, the persistence of such discriminatory tactics in New York -- long an innovator in public policy -- has legitimized these approaches. The administration's failure to evolve in this respect has reinforced the message that both Bloomberg and Kelly have made fairly explicit: that it is impossible to preserve public safety while also respecting the rights of all residents. For over a decade, they have asserted through words and actions that even the most sophisticated police force in the nation is incapable of doing things differently. Even with billions in funding and what are purported to be the greatest public safety minds in the nation at its disposal, the Department has been unable to break with a shameful history of subjecting people of color and other historically marginalized groups to invidious forms of social control.
New York's recent move to reject discriminatory policing, however, contains a lesson for elected leaders everywhere. Put simply, in the 21st century, outdated notions of government accountability must expand. The Bloomberg administration's efforts to defend the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices are, perhaps, most instructive when understood as a failure to deal with this fact. Local leaders must, of course, safeguard the rights and attend to the needs of all constituents, regardless of their numbers. But in a city with large numbers of black, brown, immigrant, homeless and LGBTQ residents, the unsustainable nature of policies that subject members of these and other groups to regular surveillance, harassment and civil rights violations should have been exceedingly clear. Still, over the last ten years, the administration has missed countless opportunities to shift course because it has ignored a sizeable chunk of its constituents. It has overlooked, for example, how unjustified street stops undermine trust between the police force and the next generation of New Yorkers, a puzzling choice for an administration that claims to be interested in keeping the city safe over the long term.
With the Council's most recent vote and implementation of the CSA imminent, the city is poised to set precedent for how large urban centers can both enforce the law and respect the constitutional rights of all residents. And the prospect of a new local executive makes this a particularly hopeful moment. If the upcoming election brings with it a mayor who aims to be a leader for all New Yorkers, the city may at long last step into the leadership role it should always have occupied, demonstrating what local government can produce when it holds itself accountable to all constituents.