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In March of this year, I wrote that the stars appeared aligned over New York to put an end to the NYPD’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices. The streets of East Flatbush were nightly populated by angry marches following the police shooting of 16-year-old Kimani Gray; the landmark federal class action suit, Floyd vs. the City of New York, seemed set to prove the unconstitutionality of stop-and-frisk and its attendant racial profiling; and ending stop-and-frisk was gaining ground as an important mandate for the mayoral race. From the streets, to the courts, to City Hall, political will pointed toward ending this disease of New York policing.
Half a year later, the constellation is less clear. Certainly, anti-stop-and-frisk activism continues. And, as was ever to be expected on the level of city politics, the anti-stop-and-frisk position du jour looks to ameliorate as opposed to end stop-and-frisk. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has publicly spoken out against the current state of the police program — one of the signature positions of his campaign — but he will face an uphill battle even for moderate reform. In the final throes of Bloomberg’s reign, the pro-stop-and-frisk mayor and “his” police department (his “army”) are doing everything possible to handcuff police reform, obstructing rather than stemming the tides pushing against the NYPD’s racist practices. Chief among these obstacles: the foul derailing of the Floyd case and federal Judge Shira Scheindlin’s sensible reform suggestions.
The Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit stayed Scheindlin’s decision on stop-and-frisk (which ruled it unconstitutional in its discriminatory nature) and removed her from the case. Odds stacked against her given the structure of the U.S. judicial system, Scheindlin nonetheless appealed the 2nd Circuit’s ruling. The appeals court rejected her request (which was supported by many, including de Blasio) and so Judge Scheindlin will remain off the case and will not have her day in court.
As Jeffrey Toobin noted for the New Yorker this week, “The city, meanwhile, is using the disqualification as a wedge to persuade the Second Circuit to junk Scheindlin’s ruling in its entirety—and to do so before Michael Bloomberg’s term as mayor concludes at the end of the year. In its brief, the city notes that ‘the effectiveness of a city’s police department depends importantly on the respect and trust of the community and on the perception in the community that it enforces the law fairly, even-handedly, and without bias.’” This is the same line essentially being peddled by the police union in its efforts to fend off reform and, as Toobin also notes, it’s ludicrous. Most troubling, perhaps, is the application of the word “perception.” After all, if the NYPD did not want to be perceived as discriminatory and untrustworthy, perhaps it should not have spent much of the last decade stopping and frisking over 5 million young black and brown men without reasonable suspicion (as is evidenced by police statistics that show 90 percent of NYPD stops under Bloomberg’s mayorship never resulted in arrest, let alone conviction.) Or perhaps operating an illegal quota system, as a number of officers who testified in the Floyd trial claimed it does. Long before Scheindlin’s ruling on stop-and-frisk’s unconstitutionality, angry New Yorkers have taken to the streets chanting, “No justice, no peace, fuck the police.” Attempts at police reform do not create a “perception” of racist practices, millions of racially charged stops and searches do that all on their own.
But with the stop-and-frisk federal class action now in “a procedural tangle,” as Toobin put it, what’s next for police reform efforts, which seemed so well positioned to succeed earlier this year? Much will depend on de Blasio when he takes office in January. Perhaps he cannot salvage Scheindlin’s Floyd ruling in the face of the obstinate appeals court. But he will certainly have the purview to push for many of Scheindlin’s suggestions, including seeing into full effect the City Council decision (surprisingly pushed through by a politically pressured Bloomberg-lite Christine Quinn and too many votes to enable a mayoral veto) to appoint an independent inspector general to monitor the police force. But enacting real reform will remain in a state of inertia while the 2nd Circuit has everything relating to NYPD stop-and-frisk practices frozen in place pending rewritten appeals. Anti-stop-and-frisk pressures from the street up must remain fierce, lest the political momentum against police racism stagnates in the face of judicial and procedural delays and obstructions.
But let’s be clear: Before taking his bow, Bloomberg and his army have stuck they’re middle finger up at the popular will, which called time this year on the structural racism of stop-and-frisk. Tim Cushing put it well in TechDirt this week, noting:
This is a last-minute push by Bloomberg’s administration to control the future and leave de Blasio facing an uphill battle against a police force openly contemptuous of any attempts to control it. As ugly as that is, it’s even worse that Bloomberg apparently needs to have this last win — and last word — before he turns over the reins to his successor.
As such, in the final weeks of his reign, stop-and-frisk remains as yet an unvanquished Bloomberg legacy.
Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email firstname.lastname@example.org.More Natasha Lennard.