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New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg cannot thwart reversal of decision on stop and frisk policy

Melvin B. Miller

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is determined to end his political career without the police department constrained by a federal court order. The city attorney filed suit to reverse the ruling of Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin that the police stop-and-frisk policy is constitutionally defective as administered by the New York City Police Department.

A three judge panel of the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals removed Scheindlin from the case but did not overturn the ruling. An appeal to the full court essentially left the ruling in place. With Bill de Blasio elected as the new mayor, the court was aware it is likely that he will withdraw the suit when he takes office.

Bloomberg’s extraordinary efforts to deny constitutional protections to black and Latino citizens of New York confirm that the stop-and-frisk policy could be improperly applied. Citizens complained of feeling powerless and disrespected by obtrusive police intervention.

It is quite unsettling to be pulled over by the police even for a petty driving violation. Therefore, it is easy to understand the humiliation of becoming a victim of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. With your hands up, the police pat you down for guns and drugs as passersby witness a believed apprehension of another dangerous felon.

Prior to 1968 the police needed “probable cause,” a fairly rigorous standard, to conduct such a search. Now all that is needed is a reasonable belief that the person “may be armed and dangerous.” According to their reports, New York police officers determine their quarry fits that description because of their “furtive movements” or “being fidgety, changing directions, walking in a certain way, grabbing at a pocket or looking over one’s shoulder.”

As might be expected from such broad justifications the number of stop and frisks in New York exploded. There were 4.43 million stops between 2004 and mid-2012. More than 90 percent of the victims were released without further police action. However, the stops were found to be racially discriminatory because 83 percent of those stopped were black or Latino while only 50 percent of the city’s population belonged to that group.

Stop-and-frisk is a very intrusive practice that seemed to be employed indiscriminately, 4.43 million times in 8.5 years. It is no wonder that the people objected. However, Bloomberg and his police commissioner Raymond Kelly have concluded that the policy as practiced was essential to maintaining law and order.

Citizens filed a case in Federal District Court where Judge Shira A. Sheindlin ruled that the arbitrary searches violated the 4th Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the disproportionate targeting of blacks and Latinos is racial profiling in violation of the 14th Amendment. She ordered a modification of the policy to make it constitutionally compliant.

Stop-and-frisk is an essential law enforcement practice, but New Yorkers expect it to be constitutionally applied during the de Blasio administration.