1:21 pm Jan. 9, 2013
The case was specifically focused on police stops outside private buildings in the Bronx whose owners had signed up for the "Operation Clean Halls," which allowed NYPD officers to stop and question people entering and leaving the buildings.
But Southern District Court judge Shira Scheindlin's decision to require that the officers be more discerning about stops was broad, and signaled a likelihood that she will have more to say about police policy when she rules on two pending stop-and-frisk cases before her.
"Operation Clean Halls" was a small component of the NYPD's controversial, citywide stop-and-frisk program, which is regarded by the mayor and most of his would-be successor as necessary in some form, but which critics say unfairly targets young black and Latino men.
In her ruling yesterday, Scheindlin fired a warning shot at the NYPD, saying some of the evidence they submitted to the court in order to defend themselves actually helped prove the plaintiff's case. Specifically, Scheindlin said the NYPD was "unable to produce a single written policy or procedure governing any aspect" of the program from its inception until 2012, after litigation began.
Also, she said, the NYPD wound up submitting a script from a training video that "misstates the law."
The script indicates that if an officer yells "Stop, police" and a suspect stops, the officer would not then frisk the suspect.
Scheindlin wrote that "it is difficult to imagine" a scenario which would unfold that way.
Citing research from Columbia University professor Jeffrey Fagan, a vocal critic of stop-and-frisk, the judge said that officers sent to high-crime areas are primed to find suspicious behavior even where none exists.
"[A]s Dr. Fagan notes, when police officers are in an area where they are primed to look for signs that 'crime is afoot,' they may be more likely to perceive a gesture as an indicator of criminality," she wrote.
The NYPD has been critical of Fagan's research for some time. Another expert whom the NYPD quotes favorably, Frank Zimring, has said it's unclear what effect a more selective application of stop-and-frisk would have on the city's overall crime numbers.
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written about police policy, said Scheindlin's ruling was "very worrisome" and may indicate how the judge "is going to rule in the remaining cases before her."
And the chairman of the New York City Public Safety Committee, Peter Vallone Jr., told me, "The Clean Halls program has very little to do with stop-and-frisk, but I guess critics will grab at anything to go after the NYPD."
The other court cases, Mac Donald said, "are even broader in their effect, are likely to go the same way," and if stop-and-frisk is undone, it could "jeopardize New York City's reputation as the nation's safest big city."
I asked Mac Donald how quickly New Yorkers would see that happening. She said "perps" have learned how dangerous it is to carry guns, and "it would take a while for them to realize the risk has gone way down." But the publicity following this and the other rulings could make it happen sooner, she said..
Mac Donald said she was dismayed by Scheindlin's ruling, especially since another city, Los Angeles (under police commissioner Bill Bratton, who held a similar title here), has similar stop-and-frisk statistics which a federal judge found acceptable.
"If it was good enough for a federal judge in Los Angeles," Mac Donald said, "it should be good enough for a federal judge in New York to come up with the same decision."
Although there are two other cases for Scheindlin to rule on, Mac Donald is assuming she'll rule in a similar way, which is in favor of plaintiffs and against the city. For supporters of stop-and-frisk, Mac Donald said, for what it's worth, the fight moves to the campaign trail.
"I think one has to fight the battle politically. The next mayoral election is going to center around this but it's very hard to overturn a judge's ruling in the political arena," she said.
Although the ruling was only issued yesterday, I asked if she was able to look back and see where her side could have argued for their cause better.
No, said Mac Donald, because the deck was stacked against them. She referred to the judge as "very smart" but not sympathetic to their arguments. Also, she said, there is the press.
"I think people have been making the argument very clearly and the media has not been hearing it," she said.
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