Civil Rights, New York

Law and disorder

In many New Yorkers’ minds, the era of stop-and-frisk left with the prior mayor.

The practice was ruled unconstitutional. Bill de Blasio was elected in large part because of his opposition to it. Its use by police has fallen dramatically. Plaintiffs in the federal case reached a settlement with the city.

None of this seems to matter to police unions. Or maybe it matters too much.

Last week, lawyers representing patrolmen, sergeants, and detectives’ unions tried to urge a federal appeals court in Manhattan to let them intervene in settlement negotiations between the city and the plaintiffs—the very method the parties chose to bring about stop-and-frisk reform. Thanks to the unions’ legal maneuverings, the process remains stalled.

The appellate judges hearing their pleas were unimpressed. And largely skeptical.

“Now, who controls the police department?” asked U.S. Circuit Judge Barrington Parker, Jr. at one point. “Is it the PBA—your clients—or the commissioner?”

U.S. Circuit Judge John M. Walker, Jr. cut to the chase: “What do you hope to gain in the appeal? The city has changed its position. The police force has changed its position. The status quo . . . is simply gone.”

This kind of chastisement was nothing new for the unions. In July, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres issued a 108-page ruling denying their plea to intervene as defendants in the case. She gave short shrift to their arguments that the original decision declaring stop-and-frisk illegal “burdened and bersmirched” the force and its reputation.

Torres wouldn’t have any of it. She ruled that the police unions’ request was untimely, that the unions had no legal “standing” to join the lawsuit, and that they had “no significant protectable interest relating to the subject of the litigation.”

In other words, too little too late. Judges at the appellate level echoed many of Torres’ criticisms.

Perhaps the tensest moment in the two-hour hearing came when Judge Parker brought up the fact that police unions were still without a contract, and that the whole purpose of this after-the-fact intervention was to get a leg up on negotiations with the city.

“You’re using this motion to intervene to try and accumulate chips,” Parker told Joseph A. DiRuzzo, an attorney representing the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the Captains Endowment Association, and the Lieutenants Benevolent Association. “You want to use this proceeding as leverage in your collective bargaining, and I don’t think that’s permissible.”

Parker said that the city is now under a newly appointed police chief and a newly elected City Council, both of which want the NYPD to operate differently.

“That’s the democratic process,” Parker said. “That’s something you have to live with.”

And with that, the same appellate court that last year sent shockwaves through the legal community—such that its transgressions were documented in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics—may have atoned for its sins and given New Yorkers a sense that it just might rule in accordance with the people’s wishes.

Because, in the end, the stop-and-frisk saga was and is all about constitutional rights and democracy. It’s not about the unions’ bargaining rights or the force’s safety, performance, or reputation. Every moment the unions spend arguing it’s about any of those things, they’re opposing the will of the people.

Because it was the people who grew weary of stop and frisk. It was the people who could no longer tolerate further racial profiling and abuse. It was the people who marched, protested, and pressed their elected officials to pass legislation aimed at curbing discriminatory policing. And ultimately, it was the people who voted for de Blasio to settle the years-long litigation and initiate reforms to the NYPD.

All of those reform efforts are for now suspended. And will be for as long as police unions insist on fighting democracy.

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