Just as our debates, over lunch pails or lattes or on cable TV, were growing repetitive and dreary as we rehashed whether the National Security Agency dangerously violates our privacy by harvesting our communications data, we were rescued Monday by some real breaking news:
A federal judge ruled that the way New York City police use stop, question and frisk tactics for anyone they consider suspicious violates the constitutional rights of “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.”
Here we go again.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly assailed Monday’s ruling, saying stop-and-frisk policing is crucial to the sharp reduction in crime in the city. Especially the judge’s appointment of a federal monitor to assure that New York City doesn’t commit the sort of abuses that Northerners once thought had to be federally monitored only down South.
But perhaps this latest case — plus the NSA controversy and even a long-forgotten chapter from the Pentagon Papers — presents us with an opportunity. Namely, to finally confront the major compromises Americans are making (and have made for decades) between our constitutional principles and our national and individual safety.
While New York City crime numbers are at historic lows, here’s what the numbers also show (as reported in The New York Times): 83 percent of the 4.4 million who were stopped by police over more than eight years were black or Hispanic (it’s also true that enforcement is greatest in high-crime neighborhoods that are predominantly black or Hispanic). Also: 88 percent of the stops resulted in no further action. Just 1.5 percent of those frisked were carrying illegal weapons.
But we must look beyond numbers to consider other results of stop-and-frisk policing: A case can be made that the greatest beneficiaries are residents of highest-crime areas. But we must also put ourselves in the shoes of a black or Hispanic teenager who is sitting on his family’s front steps, where he is questioned and frisked by police — and ultimately released.