Stop-and-Frisk Ruled Unconstitutional: A ‘Fair Trial’ for the NYPD?

Mayor Bloomberg says New York City didn’t get a ‘fair trial’ from the judge who rejected its stop-and-frisk policy—and suggested she’ll be to blame if the murder rate rises. Michael Daly on the man appointed to oversee the cops’ tactics.

08.13.13 8:45 AM ET

On the day a federal judge ruled the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional, a man named Meredith Lamron appeared in Brooklyn criminal court, charged with attempting to steal a cellphone while pistol-whipping the victim so badly his face was shattered.

“Eye socket, jaw, nose,” the prosecutor said. “He had several teeth knocked out.”

Lamron was arrested soon after the attack and identified by four eyewitnesses. He insisted it was all just a case of mistaken identity.

“He stated he was waiting for a bus when police apprehended him,” his lawyer told the court.

Lamron had a problem beyond the witnesses who had followed him after the attack and reported seeing him ditch a bloodstained outer shirt.

“He had blood on his sneakers, tank top, and pants,” the prosecutor noted.

The police had approached him after receiving a detailed description. And the blood and the multiple identifications indisputably constituted probable cause for stopping him, so nobody was suggesting the cops had acted unconstitutionally.

But he was caught only after the attack.

One immediate question was whether the crime might have been prevented if Lamron had been stopped and frisked beforehand. The tactics almost certainly have saved untold thousands of innocents from grievous injury, even death.

A larger question is whether there will be many more crimes as bad or even worse if the New York cops greatly reduce such stops.

The blood of those attacks, Mayor Bloomberg has all but come out and said, will be on the hands of Judge Shira Scheindlin. He suggested she will be personally to blame if her decision stands and the murder rate in the city rises from its current record low of less than one a day. The rate previously was six a day.

For her part, Scheindlin says the city’s “highest officials” have “turned a blind eye” as the cops in the street pursued the tactic “in a racially discriminatory manner.”

“In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of targeting ‘right people’ is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution,” the judge wrote.

But Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly insist that the stop-and-frisks were conducted within the guidelines established by the U.S. Supreme Court. They say there is a legitimate reason why the great majority of stops were in minority neighborhoods.

“Because that’s where the crime is,” Kelly said after the decision was released.

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He and Bloomberg noted that if the murder rate had continued at where it was 11 years ago, 7,363 New Yorkers who are alive today would be dead, the overwhelming majority of them young men of color.

“The New York City Police Department saves lives, and it trains its officers to act within the law,” Kelly declared.

Bloomberg said, “This is a very dangerous decision made by a judge who I think just does not understand how policing works.”

The mayor contended that the city had not received a “fair trial.” He suggested that the judge had made up her mind from the start.

“This decision only confirms that,” he added.

The city will contest the ruling, he promised. The problem for Bloomberg is that he will soon be out of office, and all those most likely to succeed him have indicated they would withdraw any appeal.

Unless the appeals court grants the city a stay, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics soon will be overseen by a court-appointed monitor, Peter Zimroth. He is Brooklyn raised and attended Abraham Lincoln High School, whose alumni include two police officers who were shot to death in the line of duty. Zimroth went on to become a prosecutor and served for a time as the corporation counsel, the city’s top lawyer. He also had an extremely brief but fateful career as a movie extra, meeting and marrying the actress Estelle Parsons, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde.

As corporation counsel, Zimroth voiced the view that sometimes a lawsuit can be a learning experience leading to better ways to govern. That is hardly the view of the present corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, and certainly not of his boss, Bloomberg.

The mayor went so far as to suggest that the combination of a stop-and-frisk monitor and the NYPD inspector general favored by the majority of the City Council could lead a cop to hesitate for a fatal instant.

You go to the family and explain to the wife or the husband that he’s not coming home that night,” Bloomberg said with the emotion of someone who has been to too many emergency rooms after a cop was shot.

The judge indicated in her decision that she will require the NYPD to equip cops in five precincts—the precincts with the most stop-and-frisks in each borough—with body cameras, such as are employed in tiny Rialto, California. Her idea is to “encourage lawful and respectful interactions on the part of both parties.”

“While the logistical difficulties of using body-worn cameras will be greater in a larger police force, the potential for avoiding constitutional violations will be greater as well,” the judge wrote.

The message to the cops is that we want you to go out and risk your life enforcing the law, but we also want you to wear this camera because we do not trust you to abstain from breaking the law yourself while you are doing it.

Meanwhile, illegal guns keep pouring into the city, despite Bloomberg’s considerable efforts to stem the tide. He feels that the best he can do absent real gun control in the states where the weapons originate is to make crooks in New York afraid to carry them around. He points to the declining number of gun arrests despite an unending influx of guns as added proof that the stop-and-frisk strategy is working.

“They’re leaving their guns at home,” Bloomberg said.

One problem that is obvious to anybody who has been out in the street is that the strategy as practiced is not just stop-and-frisk, but stop-and-frisk-and-go-in-in-your-pocket-and-maybe-your-underwear-and-maybe-even-your-socks. Cops too often fail to stop with the simple frisk to determine the presence of a weapon and continue to search for a small bag of pot or some other excuse to make a collar. Most of the time they do not find even that. But they do leave one more bit of resentment.

Zimroth is a graduate of Yale Law School. He might consult a current lecturer there named Dean Esserman, who is also chief of the New Haven Police Department. Esserman has been working with Yale professor Tracey Meares, who has articulated concepts she calls police legitimacy and procedural justice that stress the importance of actions by cops being perceived as legitimate and fair. Both are possible while still tossing a guy for a gun.

One has to sympathize with Bloomberg and Kelly, who find themselves being accused of willfully ignoring racist and illegal tactics. This while they have been so remarkably successful in making New York safe.

Bloomberg’s contention that many bad guys are leaving their guns at home seems supported by the charge sheets posted outside criminal court in Manhattan and in Brooklyn on Monday. Just two gun charges were listed among more than 100 cases.

The case in Brooklyn involving the victim whose face was smashed in with a pistol was a reminder that the city still has its dangers, even with the present stop-and-frisk strategies. To hear of the frightful injuries suffered by that victim and to look at the defendant police say they found spattered with blood was to shudder at the thought of such incidents becoming commonplace again.

“People also have a right to walk down the street without being killed or mugged,” Bloomberg said.