Handcuffing the NYPD

Sometimes the good old days were not so good.

Take New York City, for example. From the 1970s through the early 1990s, the city seemed to be in its death throes. Teetering on bankruptcy, it slashed services to a bare minimum, while an entire borough, the Bronx, was transformed by arsonists into an area of smoldering rubble.

The city’s descent into dysfunction and chaos was primarily due to one factor: crime. New York was labeled as the Murder Capital of the World, where violence and mayhem reigned. In 1990, 2,245 New Yorkers were murdered, the same as the total number of American soldiers killed during 13 years of conflict in Afghanistan. The subways became the favorite means of transportation for criminals and home to addicts. The wail of car alarms would punctuate the evening hours, joining the cacophony of police and fire truck sirens.

Residents, tired of wondering whether their car would be stolen or have its stereo system ripped out, tired of extortion by squeegee men, tired of looking over their shoulders to check for muggers, moved out by the hundreds of thousands. Between 1970 and 1980, the city’s population declined by 800,000 residents. New York City was dying.

Since then, New York has been the comeback kid of American cities, the safest city among the 25 most populous in the U.S. It was a new attitude towards policing that resuscitated the city, the conviction that citizens, too, have rights, not only criminals; that motorists deserve the right to not be threatened by homeless men wielding squeegees; that all crime, no matter how small, was a disease that would spread unless stopped by vigorous law enforcement.

We should never repeat those “good” old days, but we will if the City Council prevails over the mayor’s veto and restricts stop-and-frisk. This policy, that permits the NYPD to pat down and question individuals who are acting suspiciously, has been a cornerstone of the city’s policing tactics for the past decade. Under the Council’s proposal, the NYPD may not use “race, national origin, color, creed, age, alienage or citizenship status or gender” when detaining individuals for stop-and-frisk.

This means that if someone reports that a crime was committed by someone who is white and wearing a black coat, and the police see two individuals, one black and one white, both wearing a black coat, they will violate the law if they question the white individual because race was used as a factor in choosing whom to question.

Such a restrictive provision makes no sense. Of course, racial profiling is abhorrent and has no justification whatsoever, and any law enforcement officer who engages in racism should be dismissed and prosecuted. But to use a skin color as a method of identifying a suspect is not racism but common sense. Is it racism to identify someone by the color of his shirt?

In addition, as per the new bill, the NYPD officer will have to identify him- or herself, tell the individual why s/he is being stopped, that s/he may have the right to refuse the search. With such restrictions and conditions, stop-and-frisk would be a toothless crime-fighting tool.

And it isn’t only on crime that stop-and-frisk has made an impact. While the city council has been fixated on the evils of racial profiling, they should better focus on the greater danger of terrorism. Since 9/11, the world has become a more dangerous place, with New York City in the crosshairs of terrorists. The most recent terrorist attack, in Boston, was a reminder of that, as the bombers intended to terrorize the Big Apple after leaving Boston. Vigorous policing has foiled or deterred terrorist attacks on subways and buildings. No doubt would-be terrorists know that suspicious activity around a New York landmark or subway would lead to a pat-down.

It’s unfortunate that terrorism has chipped away at civil liberties, but it’s the new reality, and we have accepted reduced liberty in airports and government buildings. It’s a fine balance between liberty and security, but we would be silly to believe that we could preserve the civil liberties of pre-9/11 days.

During the 1970s, it didn’t take long for New York to descend into a vortex of crime, and it could have easily continued down the same path of destruction taken by Detroit, Newark or many other cities that became mostly inhabitable, that were more concerned about violating the rights of criminals than protecting the rights of citizens. New Yorkers made a choice then to turn the city back from the abyss.

We are faced with a choice again today. Do we want the New York of the 1970s, the murder capital? Or do we want the New York that has become the capital of the world?