Civil Rights, New York

New chief of police, one big challenge

With the announcement that Bill Bratton will succeed Ray Kelly in heading the New York City Police Department, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio sent out a clear message: stop-and-frisk will continue.

In fact, many observers have already questioned whether Bratton is up to the task of what de Blasio promised on the campaign trail. But that’s not a reason to worry. At least not yet.

Stop-and-frisk has been legal in the United States since 1968, when the Supreme Court green-lighted it in the case Terry v. Ohio.

The decision was controversial because it was the first time that the high court allowed a lower standard than what the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution allows. Before Terry, all stops required probable cause, or enough circumstances to lead a police officer to the conclusion that a person was committing or had committed a crime. With Terry everything changed: now police only needed “reasonable suspicion,” a lesser requirement. And more ambiguous, too, because what’s reasonable for an officer may not be reasonable for another.

The Supreme Court knew that it was entering dangerous territory in legalizing stop-and-frisk. Earl Warren, the chief justice at the time—and former prosecutor and the author of a series of landmark criminal justice decisions—often made reference to the “resentment” that such detentions and searches elicited in minorities, the vast majority blacks.

Chief Justice Warren’s worry was evident. In his ruling, he ended up calling stop-and-frisk “a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment,” and that it was “not to be undertaken lightly.”

The words are almost prophetic, because it is precisely the levity with which the NYPD has conducted stops and frisks of blacks and Latinos that has ignited furor—leading up to several federal lawsuits, social mobilization, and a political campaign that positioned Bill de Blasio as the city’s new mayor.

But none of that ends the resentment. The implicit legacy of stop-and-frisk is a generation of youth that doesn’t trust the police, feels unprotected, and has lost faith in public institutions and their representatives.

A study published by the Vera Institute of Justice revealed interesting perspectives from about 500 New York City youths about their experiences with stop-and-frisk. The majority of them agreed that their neighborhoods don’t trust the police, that they wouldn’t feel comfortable reporting a crime, or that they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for help, even if they were the victims. In other words: insecure youth in a city that boasts about its safety.

That’s why Bill Bratton’s biggest challenge goes beyond what he decides to do with stop-and-frisk. Reverting how youth feel about the police is not achieved by simply reducing the number of stops; this is not a numbers game. (Numbers which, by the way, have decreased dramatically.)

Change is possible by forging bonds with communities, making them actors in the fight against crime. Change is possible by way of mutual respect and equal treatment. It’s possible by safeguarding the spirit of Terry, reminding the police that a person’s bodily integrity is sacred. It’s possible by reminding officers time and again that, under the law, no single person is more or less suspicious because of the color of their skin or the way they dress. That’s the least the Constitution requires of us.

Bratton has already had great success in New York and Los Angeles. This is his opportunity to do it again.

(A version of this column was originally published in Spanish in the print and online editions of New York’s El Diario.)

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