If a federal court determines that the New York Police Department systematically violated the civil rights of residents through its stop-and-frisk behavior — which the court probably will — the Department of Justice has declared its willingness to provide a monitor for oversight. Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly are "outraged," according to the Daily News (which broke the story). To which there is only one reasonable response: Get over it.
By way of quick background, the city of New York has for over a decade been conducting widespread stops of people loosely considered suspicious, usually resulting in a frisk. After a court ruling mandated the collection of data on the stops, the city began releasing numbers about who they stopped and where, and whether or not an arrest resulted. The data can best be summarized by this graph, showing the annual percentages of stop-and-frisks of people of color and of people found to have done nothing wrong.
A series of lawsuits were filed against the city, charging that a system that resulted in targeting of people of color who had committed no crime suggested some bias. This spring a federal judge (the same one that mandated the data collection) heard testimony in the case, concluding evidence-gathering in May. The last day to file briefs was Wednesday, which is when the Justice Department did so.
The first thing worth pointing out is that the judge is almost certainly going to determine that the city violated the civil rights of many of the people it stopped. We've documented why fairly extensively in the past, but we can summarize: that chart above. The data suggests so strongly that police intentionally targeted people of color that the NYPD was forced to rely largely on a "But it worked!" defense — which judge Shira Scheindlin rejected out of hand. In other words, a federal court is very likely to determine that the police department of the largest city in the country spent over a decade in which it stopped millions of people — some multiple times — based on very loose standards of suspiciousness. That it consistently violated Fourth Amendment protections. That the NYPD did wrong. If that happens, which it hasn't yet, there needs to be punishment. Complaints from Bloomberg and Kelly, enablers if not conductors of that wrong-doing, are akin to complaints from a convicted felon that he has to go to prison. "Don't do the crime," etc.
The second thing is that this is hardly a novel punishment. The Department of Justice's brief (which you can read at the bottom of this article) explains why it thinks an oversight role is appropriate:
The United States has a broad interest in ensuring that identified unconstitutional police conduct is adequately remedied given that it is responsible for enforcing several federal civil rights statutes that prohibit law enforcement agencies from depriving persons of their rights under the Constitution and other laws. The United States enforces the police misconduct provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which authorizes the Attorney General to file lawsuits seeking court orders to reform police departments engaging in a pattern or practice of violating citizens’ federal rights.
And it does this a lot. The brief — signed, as Salon's Alex Pareene notes, by Obama's Labor Secretary nominee — lists cities in which Justice has intervened following apparent police misconduct or ineptitude: Seattle, Detroit, East Haven (Connecticut). But that's just the start! It's taken action of some kind in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Newark, Spokane, Cleveland, Portland, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. And that list is almost certainly incomplete. Point being: the Justice Department sees such corrective action as its mandate, and is hardly conducting some novel exercise meant to show up Michael Bloomberg. It's a completely predictable development.
And, third, it's a valuable one. Again, from the DoJ brief:
The appointment of an independent monitor also can serve to provide the public confidence in the reform process. With allegiance only to the Court and its order for relief, alongside a duty to report its findings accurately and objectively, the monitor’s assessments not only provide the Court with the information it needs to determine whether injunctive relief has been effectively implemented, but assure the public that the police department will move forward in implementing the Court’s order—and will not escape notice if it does not.
In other words: the people of New York will probably have more confidence in an independent third party enacting fixes to rampant violations of the Constitution than the guy who to this day defends those violations. (If the court finds that they exist, which, again!, it probably will.)
But Bloomberg being Bloomberg, he's acting out. From Politicker:
“We think that a monitor would be even more disruptive than an IG,” the mayor said during an unrelated press conference in Long Island City, Queens, referring to a plan by the City Council to create an Inspector General over the department. …
“It’s just a terrible idea and it’s not needed,” said the mayor, who argued that, when a monitor were forced on Philadelphia, crime spiked.
Oh, we didn't have Philadelphia on our list above.
He went on. "We have done the streets of New York City. We have an enormous amount of experience," Bloomberg said. "It’s pretty hard to argue that we don't know what we're doing."
Actually, it appears to have been pretty hard for the city to argue that it knew what it was doing when its police force stopped thousands of people of color every day for reasons including "wearing inappropriate attire for the season." Maybe the judge will be convinced that Bloomberg and Kelly really do know what they're doing. If so, good for her. A lot of other people aren't.
The Department of Justice's brief is below.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.