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Trayvon Martin and the NYPD's Stop-and-Frisk Fixation

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The shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida has ricocheted back to New York. Minority lawmakers are up in arms about the city police practice of stopping and frisking young black and Hispanic men.

It doesn't actually relate to what happened in Florida, where Martin, 17, was tailed and then shot to death by a self-appointed crime stopper in a gated community where the boy had gone out to buy snacks while watching a basketball game at the home of his father's girlfriend.

Except that it does. The reason the Martin story hit people so hard was the perpetual worry in the homes of black and Hispanic teenagers that their sons will wind up getting killed for no good reason, in a confrontation with someone who thinks that any minority kid is a potential criminal.

Frisking by police is part of that pattern. It happens a lot. Most minority politicians have stories from their own past, of being stopped for no good reason, and embarrassed by a pat-down. State legislators recounted their experiences, as did City Council members, at a hearing with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

The Police Department stopped a record 684,330 people last year, 87 percent of them black or Hispanic. The vast majority were young men, and you have to figure that the odds are overwhelming that if you grow up male and minority in this city, you'll wind up being stopped sooner or later.

This has a terrible effect on police-community relations, but Kelly feels it's a proven crime-prevention tactic that benefits minority communities where most of the serious crime occurs.

Maybe. But of the 600,000-plus stops last year, only 819 resulted in the recovery of a gun.

Still, that's 819 guns off the streets. But is it worth all that ill will? The problem is that it's impossible to prove a negative. I can't prove that crime wouldn't go up if the stop-and-frisk program was restrained. I also can't prove that terror attacks wouldn't resume if Kelly was forced to drop his secret surveillance of Muslim businesses, social groups and houses of worship.

I also can't prove that if Kelly stepped down, an earthquake and tsunami wouldn't follow. I'm pretty sure, though.

You don't have to be a die-hard Kelly critic to feel that this would be a good time to put in his papers, accept the accolades for crime and terror-fighting that he's bound to receive, and move on.

People who stay in difficult, high-responsibility jobs for a long time tend to acquire critics at a faster rate than new friends. It's harder and harder for them to give up tactics that they feel have worked well in the past. They run out of new tricks. It's not something that's unique to the police chief. His boss, Michael Bloomberg, is in the same zone.

But having a police commissioner who's been in the job too long is in some ways more dangerous for the city than having a mayor who's overdue for a change. I don't know exactly what to do about the stop-and-frisk controversy. I just know that Kelly's not the guy to resolve it.

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