Momentum surges for police reform

NYC politicians push for a police watchdog. A federal judge examines stop and frisk. Dramatic change may be coming

Published March 20, 2013 4:36PM (EDT)

 NYPD officers             (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
NYPD officers (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

The NYPD is currently on trial in more ways than one. While a federal judge presides over a landmark case challenging the constitutionality of the police department's stop-and-frisk tactic, political will is growing to ban the racially divisive policing practices and to increase oversight on NYPD behavior. From the streets of East Flatbush to the forums of mayoral debates, momentum is growing to challenge the NYPD as it currently operates.

While Mayor Bloomberg's administration has long maintained that independent oversight of the NYPD is not necessary, his ally, City Council Speaker (and mayoral candidate) Christine Quinn announced Tuesday that lawmakers had reached a deal to install an inspector general to monitor the vast police department. The call for an inspector general, who could have investigative powers and the ability to issue subpoenas, followed mounting evidence of widespread discriminatory policing, both in the form of stop-and-frisks (over 86 percent of which target black and Latino New Yorkers) and the NYPD's spying on Muslim communities. For a careful politician like Quinn to support such a proposal reflects a shifting political tide towards reform.

The NYPD, backed by the mayor, has already pushed back on the inspector general proposal. "No police department in America has more oversight than the NYPD," chief police spokesman Paul Browne said in a statement. But civil rights advocates say setting up a watchdog is only a first step.

According to the AP:

New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said her group was gratified that the council appeared poised 'to create meaningful oversight and mechanisms to investigate police practices,' but advocates wanted action on the other proposals, too.

Quinn said Tuesday that lawmakers were also progressing on talks around three other police reform proposals. The companion proposals, the AP noted, would "require officers to explain why they are stopping people, to tell people when they have a right to refuse a search and to hand out business cards identifying themselves. The measures also would give people more latitude to sue over stops they considered biased." Despite Bloomberg and NYPD resistance, Quinn suggested that the city council had the votes to pass the reform plan and override a mayoral veto.

While the city council readies itself to fight the current mayor on this issue, NYPD abuses have also crystallized as a hot button in the race for his successor. Quinn is not the only candidate leveraging political capital from growing anti-NYPD sentiment. In what Capital New York's Azi Paybarah called "the most attention-grabbing moment from last night's mayoral forum in Brooklyn," candidate John Liu marked himself off as the anti-Bloomberg, anti-stop-and-frisk choice. He laid down the gauntlet, inviting opponent Bill Thompson to join him in calling for a ban on stop-and-frisk. Thompson and Liu are both Democrats and Thompson, the only black candidate, does not advocate for banning stop-and-frisk, but rather a more prudent deployment of the tactic. "I'm the one who has to worry about my son being stopped-and-frisk. I'm the one who has to worry about my son being shot in the streets of New York. I'm the one who has to worry," Thompson responded to Liu at a Tuesday forum.

As Salon noted last month, a poll from Quinnipiac University found that the majority of New Yorkers oppose the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy. 55 to 39 percent of voters said they disapprove of the tactic and 44 to 22 percent that they are less likely rather than more likely to vote for a mayoral candidate who supports continuing stop-and-frisk. With Bloomberg on the way out and city council members aligning to push for oversight, even if there is not broad political will to end stop-and-frisk, certainly there is ample momentum to reform the tactic.

As indeed there should be. Of the 5 million stop-and-frisks carried out under the Bloomberg administration, over 86 percent have targeted black or Lation individuals and 88 percent of the stops did not result in an arrest or summons (let alone convictions). These numbers alone speak to a pattern of discrimination and intimidation. And while suspicion for carrying a weapon is consistently stated by police as the reason for stopping an individual, stop-and-frisks have quadrupled in the last ten years, but the number of weapons recovered has barely changed. Stop-and-frisks became instead an excuse to hand out tickets and arrests over minor drug offenses -- as new evidence of NYPD arrest quotas indicates.

Indeed the same day that The Nation published a leaked recording showing a police union delegate agreeing arrest and ticket quotas with the police department, evidence of illegal police quotas came to light yesterday in the ongoing federal stop-and-frisk trial. A suspended NYPD officer testified Tuesday in the landmark Floyd vs. City of New York trial that his supervisors pushed quotas for stop-and-frisk searches and arrests. Officer Adhyl Polanco said that supervisors would make beat cops' lives "miserable" if they didn't give out 20 summonses per month and at least one arrest (the same quota number cited in the leaked audio). Police quotas are illegal but have been couched in the misleading language of "productivity goals" by the department in the past.

Last year, following a series of protest marches in New York (including the thousands-strong demonstration calling for justice for Trayvon Martin), I wrote in support of generalized anger at the NYPD. In light of a new batch of statistics from the NYCLU, which again showed the gross disproportionality with which young black and Latino were stopped by police, I wrote:

Is it a surprise, then, that in a march of 5,000 predominantly non-white New Yorkers organized to call for justice for the murdered Trayvon Martin, with Occupy support, that chants moved smoothly from “We are Trayvon Martin!” to “Fuck the Police!”? The greater surprise should perhaps be why more people don’t feel angry at the NYPD. Of course, many will continue to disagree with anti-police marches. However, when statistics on policing show what the NYCLU’s Lieberman called “a tale of two cities,” disagreements should only arise over tactics to redress this system; it seems there’s an overwhelming case for fury at the police.

This week in New York we find ourselves at a moment long overdue in the eyes of civil rights advocates, activists and millions of New Yorkers: Momentum in the courts, city politics and the streets is driving in the same direction.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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