After a successful lawsuit against the most racially charged parts of New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, activists, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, were disappointed on October 31 when the judge who had ruled the method of “reasonable search” on hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers a year unconstitutional in August was removed from the case for failing to appear impartial in public statements on the case. For now, that ruling is stayed until the city’s appeal of the original decision is decided upon. Stop-and-frisk is officially back on at least until March 2014. However, it’s hard to know exactly how long it will last in practice, particularly when the New York City mayoral race on Tuesday will likely bring in a new guy—Democrat Bill de Blasio—who is less keen on the policy than lame duck Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch defender of his baby. De Blasio expressed displeasure with the decision on Thursday, and he wants to stop the most racially contentious aspects of the policy, though not throw out these searches entirely. This is a popular move with blacks and Hispanics who are 80-90 percent of the recipients of these police searches. A majority of them want to reform the policy, but not throw it out. The now-removed Judge Shira Scheindlin also believed that was possible with federal oversight, more police cameras, and no more baseless racial targeting. Mayor Bloomberg, Commissioner Ray Kelly, and others say that the stops are based on concrete crime statistics and nothing more. They credit it with a decline in crime stats. Critics, including NYPD whistleblower Adrian Schoolcraft, allege that stop-and-frisk is a rigorously enforced quota. Those affected by stop-and-frisk have also come out to tell their stories of being repeatedly subjected to searches.
Any real reform would be a good start, but what would stop-and-frisk look like if it weren’t racially biased? Around 90 percent of the stops in recent years did not lead to arrests—this was about half a million in 2012, and nearly 700,000 the year before.
Stop-and-frisk is, by definition, cops casting a wide net in their searches for drugs and guns (possession of neither of which are in themselves violent crimes). De Blasio, to his credit, wants to up actual community policing in neighborhoods as he dials down stop-and-frisk. Community policing ideally means officers who know locals and know their beats and become part of things—not so much a heavy-handed pat-down for guns and drugs and an alienating, suspicion-building presence.
New York City is invariably a trendsetter on policy matters, from smoking bans to labels on fast food (More Bloomberg babies). Stop-and-frisk copycats have raised the hackles of civil liberties activists in Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia in recent months and years. These things are rarely contained to one city. But in spite of the disappointing ruling on Thursday, New York stop-and-frisk is either on its way out, or will soon be seriously crippled. That’s good, and it’s a little late for the majority of the New Yorkers harassed and dehumanized during four million stops in the past decade.
Now on to the bad cops of the week:
-On Tuesday, a woman in Philadelphia was the victim of a wrong-door Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raid. The home of Corinne Webb was apparently mistaken for that of a member of a multimillion-dollar prescription drug ring, the crackdown on which lead to 27 arrests. Webb was woken up by DEA agents who broke her door in, ransacked her home, and shone lights in her eyes at 6 a.m.. They showed her a picture of a man she didn’t know, and left without making any arrests. During the raid, Webb says “she asked for papers” but the agents never showed a warrant, and only said they would be back later. The stress of the event lead to Webb having an asthma attack for which she was hospitalized. Wrong-door raids happen, though they shouldn’t. The most surprising thing about this story might be that the Philadelphia Housing Authority replaced Webb’s broken front door the very same day. Points for replacing her busted property so quickly, but Webb is angry and upset by her rude and dangerous federal agent awakening, and it’s hard to blame her.
-An East Haven, Connecticut father turned himself into police on October 22 after he was charged with breach of the peace in the second degree due—a class B misdemeanor—over a Facebook post he made. Angelo Eppi, whose daughter attends the local Joseph Melillo Middle School, was concerned about what he considered lax safety at the school. About three weeks ago, Eppi walked into his daughter’s school and filmed—noting the wide-open doors in the middle of the day, the lack of security cameras, and no staff around to stop him from walking in. Eppi uploaded the video, to some media attention. But still concerned, he later wrote several frustrated Facebook posts. “Maybe I have to walk in with Toy guns just to prove a point," he said. That apparently provoked more than 50 complaints by parents, leading to twice as many kids to call in sick as average that day. Eppi was bailed out of jail by his father, and has pleaded not guilty to the charge. His, um, enthusiasm might have creeped a few people out, but New Haven cops say it was not wandering into the school that provoked the charges, but what he wrote online. Law professor Eugene Volokh blogged that he doesn’t think Eppi’s charges were constitutional, considering that he didn’t make any direct threats—not even with the toy gun—and therefore the police’s “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre” excuse doesn’t hold up.
-On October 29, a nonpartisan lobbyist group, Public Citizen, teamed up with the law office of Kramon and Graham to sue the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security over their heavy-handed attempts to shut down their client Dan McCall, the proprietor ofLibertymaniacs.com, when he he tried to design and sell parody t-shirts. In a world where the NSA gets to spy on us, we should be allowed to design and sell satirical t-shirts that say messages like, “The NSA: The only part of the government that listens” without them sending cease and desist letters.
-After a month in jail, and then an electronic tracking ankle bracelet, the Allegheny County District Attorney dropped charges of armed robbery against a Pittsburgh man on Friday. Former security guard DeAndre Brown was accused of robbing a local bakery and getting away with $80. The bakery clerk claims to have told police that Brown “may or may not be the one” who robbed him at 2:45 p.m. on September 10. Before he was freed on bond—lowered to an affordable level after a month—Brown stressed that a surveillance video from the public library would show that he was there for a job training seminar between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. That plus a sign-in sheet proved his story. A month in jail is a long time on one, vague eyewitness’s word. Brown has no criminal record.
-On Halloween, the Facebook page for the Columbia, South Carolina police department posted a report on a marijuana dealer bust. Someone named Brandon Whitmer commented with a suggestion that maybe the police should focus more on violent criminals and less on marijuana, especially since the drug is likely to be legal relatively soon. The official Columbia PD Facebook account responded by saying they had arrested “all the violent criminals” and that by commenting, Whitmer had “giv[en] us reasonable suspicion to believe you might be a criminal and “[w]e will work on finding you." This comment was deleted relatively quickly, but it got better—the official account posted again, this time claiming to be from the Interim Chief of Police, Ruben Santiago. It seems that some slightly-less-alarming member of his staff had deleted that first comment, but it was Santiago. He clarified: “I put everyone on notice that if you advocate for the use of illegal substances in the City of Columbia then it's reasonable to believe you MIGHT also be involved in that particular activity, threat?" Why would someone feel theaten [sic] if you are not doing anything wrong?" Why indeed? Santiago concluded his comment by expressing his pleasure at exchanging ideas and free expression with the citizens of the city. When pressed for comment, the police department confirmed that Santiago wrote the posts and said “the original comment was misconstrued.” Maybe police officers who can’t use social media without threatening to arrest people shouldn’t use social media. And maybe police officers who make such hasty jumps between speech and assumption of (consensual) criminal behavior shouldn’t be cops at all.
-On the other hand, this guy should be a cop. VICE’s good cop of the week—or possibly the century—is none other than the Salt Lake City Chief of Police, Chris Burbank. Huffington Post journalist Radley Balko highlighted Burbank in his series on police reforms last week, and it’s easy to see why. In 2011, Burbank managed to clear out Occupy Salt Lake City without riot cops or violence after personally speaking with many of the campers. He says he doesn’t like riot gear for protests, even if it makes his officer a little safer, because that leads to more aggression on both sides. He doesn’t think it’s possible to round up illegal immigrants without unconscionable profiling of legal Hispanics. And having participated in numerous no-knock drug raids in his career, Burbank doesn’t think they are particularly helpful and are indeed dangerous for cops and homeowners. He even refuted some serious cop statement cliches, telling Balko, “Too often we start with the highest level of force. We should always start at the lowest level. I think we get too caught up in the whole officer safety thing.” Burbank sounds exactly like the kind of cop we like to say we have, but we just don’t most of the time—the kind that realizes it’s not just about getting his officers home every day, it’s about them doing a very particular job—sometimes very dangerous—that de-escalates the level of force whenever possible and bravely faces it when it’s truly unavoidable.