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Bloomberg's Rockefeller Legacy

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Mayor Bloomberg came out swinging at his final State of the City address last Thursday, recapping his achievements and defending his policy decisions. About the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk program he said, "We have a responsibility to conduct them, and as long as I am mayor, we will not shirk from that responsibility."

The NYPD stopped 533,042 people in 2012. Of these, 89 percent (over 473,000 people) were completely innocent of any crime; 55 percent (over 286,000 people) were black; and 32 percent (over 166,000 people) were Latino.

"Now, I understand that innocent people don't like to be stopped, but innocent people don't like to be shot and killed, either," said the mayor. "And stops take hundreds of guns off the street each year."

This is true, but not necessarily something to brag about. Out of 533,042 stops in 2012, the NYPD recovered 780 guns. It's hard to imagine a success rate of less than two tenths of a percent flying for any initiative at Bloomberg LLC.

Listening to Mayor Bloomberg framing his legacy brought to mind the legacy of another moderate Republican with presidential ambitions. Forty years ago, Governor Nelson Rockefeller launched his campaign for mandatory prison sentences of 15 years-to-life for those caught with even small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin.

The policy, which was signed into law in May of 1973 and became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, was criticized by civil rights advocates but also embraced by some leaders in the black community. "Our young people are dying, they're being destroyed," said Glester Hines, founder of the People's Civic and Welfare Association in Harlem, "And unless you back this bill, New York State is doomed."

Once the Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted, New York's prison population skyrocketed from just over 13,000 in 1970 to 71,000 in 2000. According to an analysis by Peter J. Wagner, "the number of prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses grew by 20.5 times" and people of color accounted for 88 percent of prison growth.

Many policymakers, including Governor Rockefeller, honestly believed that harsh drug sentencing laws would reduce violent crime and make communities safer. Debate raged for decades about whether this was true, but eventually the tide shifted. In 2001 an editorial in the New York Times referred to an "overwhelming consensus" that the Rockefeller Laws "are inhumane and expensive." Over the past 10 years, the state legislature passed significant reforms to the original laws. New York's prison population declined from 71,000 to 59,000, and crime continued to decline. New York is now a model for states across the country attempting to reverse incarceration trends that are costly in both human and financial terms.

Rockefeller intended to leave a legacy as the Governor who made New York safer. Instead, his name has become synonymous with racial bias and a bloated prison system that functions as a "poverty trap," in the words of Harvard Sociologist Bruce Western.

Today, New York is once again pioneering a draconian law enforcement strategy that targets communities of color in the name of controlling violent crime. Forty years from now we'll look back with horror at the notion that stopping hundreds of thousands of young black and Latino men and subjecting them to repeated humiliation was the key to public safety.

Unfortunately, we're not there yet. Some are even making the dangerous assertion that New York's prison population has decreased because the NYPD expanded its police force and began aggressively policing low-level offenses. In reality, New York's prison population declined because felony crime declined. And there is still no research that convincingly links that decline to NYPD policies.

In fact, New Yorkers are arguably less safe because of what the NYPD is doing, and our wallets are a little lighter as well. Some of the neighborhoods with the highest levels of stop-and-frisk also see the highest levels of use of force by the NYPD. In the 44th precinct in the Bronx, where I work, the NYPD recorded using force during stops more than 8,000 times in 2011. Not surprisingly, the 44th precinct also led the City in lawsuits filed against the NYPD that year. Overall in 2011 taxpayers shouldered the burden of $185 million in settlement payouts for lawsuits against the NYPD alone. And we all suffer for the chasm of trust that has developed between the NYPD and communities they are supposed to serve and protect.

Mayor Bloomberg's legacy is in danger of looking a lot like Governor Rockefeller's. Just like the Rockefeller Drug Laws, policing policies under Mayor Bloomberg have proven to be costly, harmful, and racially biased. But it's not too late for New York to change police practices and make us proud to look back on our city forty years from now.