Quinn says stop-and-frisk problems are ‘a danger to good policing’

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Quinn, Kelly and Bloomberg, walking. (Dana Rubinstein)
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At a public safety hearing this morning, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn raised concerns about the controversial police tactic known as "stop-and-frisk," saying the fact it impacts mostly black and Latino men in poor neighborhoods "is a problem." She also said the policy creates a rift with local residents that is "a danger to good policing and a danger to keeping our city safe."

This is Quinn's latest, and arguably most direct, critique of the policy. In a letter sent to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly in February, Quinn said the use of stop-and-frisk has "sown distrust" among residents, but acknowledged its role in police efforts to fight crime.

"The focus should not be on the quantity" of stops, but the quality of the frisk," Quinn said. "Was it done correctly? Did it yield a weapon? Did it get a gun off the street?"

That last part could help Quinn distinguish herself from some of her likely rivals in next year's mayor's race, particularly Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who recently said there is a "fatal dose" of stops being conducted, and wants the mayor to reduce them.

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Today's hearing allowed Council members to publicly consider four pieces of legislation, collectively known as the Community Safety Act, which are meant to bolster accountability over police practices and curtail what critics say are unfair policies aimed at minority residents.

Among the witnesses was the counselor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has conceded the stop-and-frisk policy could be better implemented, but has nonetheless declared it indispensable to fighting crime.

During a particulary testy part of his two-hour testimony before the Council today, the counselor, Michael Best, echoed Bloomberg's position, saying, "In general, the police department is doing its job very well."

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, the prime sponsor of three of the four bills, disagreed, and said it was "disrespectful" that members of the NYPD, and other officials from the mayor's administration, were not in attendance.

Best argued that the three of the four proposed bills were unconstitutional under state law, which often preempts city statutes. A fourth bill, to create an office of Inspector General for the NYPD, improperly "curtailed" the mayor's power to run the agency as he sees fit and to hire whomever he chooses, Best argued.

Among the bills cited by Best as being unconstitutional was Intro 800, which would redefine "racial profiling" and lower the legal bar for filing suits based on profiling.

Quinn, arguing in favor of the Council's ability to pass such a bill, said the city had already passed a law on that topic. (Quinn was under the impression the earlier law was signed by Rudy Giuliani, but, as Best pointed out, the law was actually signed by Bloomberg—in 2004, when the city "codifie[d]" existing laws against profiling, and expanded the protections to include other uniformed officers.)

Best suggested that law might also have been unconstitutional. "One does not know what would have happened if somebody challenged it in court," he said.

Best's argument was that there was "no role for local legislation in this field" with regard to stop-and-frisk, because of state laws and court precedents.

During his nearly two-hour testimony, Best also referenced the "impracticality" of one of the bills he said was unconstitutional, which would require proof of consent before a search. He described a hypothetical night-time encounter between a police officer and a person who does not speak English, and who would not, in theory, be unable to consent to such a search.

To refute the argument the Council didn't have the power to pass the package of laws, Councilman Brad Lander rattled off a list of other municipalities around the state that had similar laws on their books, none of which, he said, had been struck down by a court. Best said he was unfamiliar with the examples Lander was citing. 

Peter Vallone Jr., the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, told me yesterday that he hoped the city would articulate the potential safety consequences of the proposed legislation, but Best largely avoided discussing the merits of the bill.