Judge Slams Stop-and-Frisk Policy

A judge says New York City's stop-and-frisk policy violates the rights of thousands of people. And Attorney General Eric Holder is proposing new ways to deal with drug offenders. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks politics with Keli Goff of The Root and Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News & World Report.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the elderly population is booming and people wonder what it'll take not only to survive but to thrive for the millions of Americans living past the traditional retirement age.

But first, let's talk a little politics. President Obama took questions from the press for the first time in months on Friday before he headed off to vacation on Martha's Vineyard.

And a federal judge today says the New York Police Department has been violating people's constitutional rights with their stop-and-frisk policy. Joining us now to talk about those things and much more, Mary Kate Cary. She's a columnist and blogger for US News and World Report. She's also a former speech writer for President George H. W. Bush, and she's here with us in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here. Thank you.

HEADLEE: And from our bureau in New York, Keli Goff, she's political correspondent for The Root. Keli, welcome back.

KELI GOFF: Good to be back.

HEADLEE: Before we get to the president's press conference, let's talk about that ruling in New York. The stop-and-frisk program. If you're not familiar with this policy, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Police officers can basically stop people that they think are suspicious and pat them down to check for guns or drugs. But critics have said for a long time that officers are targeting black and brown people during these stops. Now a federal judge has ruled the NYPD violated people's rights through this program. Keli, you are in New York, what's your reaction to this ruling?

GOFF: Well, I've been covering this story really heavily for the last year or so, and I think that a lot of us are really happy. For those who don't know, I am African-American - for your listeners who don't know. And I'm not trying to be funny, but in all seriousness, when you look at the numbers on this, it was really kind of ridiculous that the Bloomberg administration and a lot of other people who were trying to support the way the practice was being carried out could say with a straight face that race had nothing to do with it. When the numbers clearly show - from the New York Civil Liberties Union investigation - that nine out of 10 of those stopped were proven to be completely innocent. Not arrested, not ticketed for anything, not found with weapons, not found with anything.

And of those 9 out of ten, only 10 percent of them were white. The other 90 percent were either black or Latino, and overwhelmingly young males. So just think about those numbers for a second. I mean, if I were a different gender, it's very possible that there are a couple times I could've missed, you know, my segment here at NPR because - just by the basis of the way I look, I'd be perceived as more worthy of being stopped than someone else.

HEADLEE: We definitely don't want you missing your deadlines here at NPR. But Mary Kate, is this a political issue?

CARY: Yeah, there is a political angle to this in the New York City mayor's race. Right now - the number one in the RealClearPolitics average of polls is Christine Quinn, who's a Bloomberg cohort, and then tied for second is Bill Thompson, who's the former Comptroller, and Bill de Blasio, who is the former New York City public advocate...

GOFF: ...Current...

CARY: Oh current, sorry.

GOFF: Yeah.

CARY: And his son Dante, who is mixed race just cut an ad. I think he's 18 years old. And said my father will be the only candidate who stops stop-and-frisk.

And as you know under this ruling, the judge did not stop the policy just put in an overseer so the policy will continue.

HEADLEE: Correct.

GOFF: Can I just plug that I have a piece up actually about Dante's ad, which is hugely groundbreaking. I mean this is like the Cheerios ad for American politics.

CARY: Yeah. It's pretty cool.

HEADLEE: You can plug that if you want, Keli.

GOFF: But, no. But I also - in all seriousness, there are very - there are differences between the candidates. And what's interesting is the African-American candidate, Bill Thompson, actually doesn't support having an inspector oversee. So this actually could be a real deciding point...

CARY: This could be a game changer...

GOFF: This is a tight, tight race and Bill de Blasio supports having an inspector, the African-American candidate Bill Thompson doesn't. Christine Quinn has really been in locks up with the Bloomberg administration. This is going to be a knockdown, drag-out to finish line kind of race and this could really be a turning point.

CARY: Do we care what Anthony Weiner's position is?

HEADLEE: We are - I was actually going to congratulate us on not having mentioned him and you ruined it, Mary Kate.

CARY: I'm so sorry.

HEADLEE: On that note, let's move on to the press conference from Friday that the president held. He took questions about the U.S. surveillance program. He talked about, perhaps, revisiting laws, like the Patriot Act, that initially allowed them to collect this kind of data. You were a speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush in which much of this went forward, Mary Kate. What's your response to what the president said on Friday?

CARY: You know, I think he's got a bit of a credibility problem. He's - all of this - the first thing - my first reaction on Friday was, you know, this kind of signals the defensive nature of the president's position because he announced it Friday, three o'clock in the afternoon in August, the day before he left on vacation. And I sort of feel like Congress is out of town, that's all you need to know. If he was proud of this pivoting, he would've announced it in the state of the union or done it proactively before all these leaks came out.

So I do think he - Snowden forced a debate that the president didn't want to have. And in that sense I think the president's credibility, by saying, oh trust me, is a bit of a problem because he's - people aren't trusting him on everything else. This isn't in a vacuum, this is in the wake of Benghazi, the IRS - all the other things that the president has promised action on an and then not delivered. And I think he's got a problem with keeping his word right now. People don't trust him.

HEADLEE: I wonder that he - I didn't get the same take away from the press conference on Friday that what the president was saying was, trust me. Keli, what do you think? Do think there's actual possibility that, especially with this divided Congress, we could get a reimagining of the Patriot Act?

GOFF: No. Look, I - you know, I'm not particularly hopeful but, you know, I think it's interesting that you're saying that you have a different take away from the press conference because I think all Americans have a different take away. And what I mean by that is the poll showed that 75 percent are really concerned about privacy and civil liberties.

CARY: And feel threatened by the government.

GOFF: They feel threatened by the government, but then when you ask them the question of do you think these policies make us safer, they're split - they're evenly divided. So it's like, what can account for that? And I think what accounts for that is the conversation we're having right now, which is yes, the president seemed offensive, yes, there are people who think that we're not getting the entirely straight truth.

But there are plenty people who think that, you know, whether that's true or not, perhaps we're a little bit safer and we're not sure if we are or not. And so we're just going to kind of defer to our leaders, you know, and hope for the best. That's what the polls have consistently showed since the story broke. So I don't really know where we go from here.

CARY: He didn't actually change any of the programs. He just included more oversight of them.

HEADLEE: Right.

CARY: And so...

HEADLEE: But he said he thinks the programs are fine as they are. Let me do a quick reset here so everyone knows who you are. If you're just joining us, you're hearing from Keli Goff, political correspondent for The Root and Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, also former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. I accidentally said...

CARY: Oh, that's all right.

HEADLEE: ...The son. But you were in administration for the dad. But let's move on just a little bit and talk about some of this gridlock and some of these are - there's some very strange partnerships arising over this issue. The president, most of the Democratic and Republican leadership are very intent, it seems, on keeping the basic apparatus in place. But there are some libertarians and some very liberal Democrats who are joining together in order to fight it. What do you think about these odd partnerships?

GOFF: Yeah, it's crossing all kinds of lines and I think, you know, you watched John McCain yesterday on the Sunday talk shows. And he was saying how upset he is that so many young people think of Edward Snowden as Jason Bourne. And I thought, that's pretty impressive that McCain knows who Jason Bourne is.

HEADLEE: Oh. Come on. That franchise has been around for a long time.

(LAUGHTER)

CARY: But I do think it is - there's some odd bedfellows here and yet, nobody's willing to sort of go too far out because they don't want to be the one blamed when something goes wrong.

HEADLEE: That's right.

CARY: And you know, we could've prevented by all the surveillance. The embassy closings is a classic example of, you know...

HEADLEE: Over the Al-Qaeda terrorist threat.

CARY: ...but, they clearly got the information through surveillance. But was it an over-reaction? Maybe, maybe not, you know. We don't know.

HEADLEE: So since we're talking about strange consensus between left and right, we might hear from Attorney General Eric Holder about prisons today. That we need to rethink mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to organized crime. And Keli, I'm wondering, again, this is an issue in which we see, to a certain extent, some consensus on both the left and the right.

GOFF: That's literally the most perfect segue I've ever heard in the history of segues 'cause the moment you said strange bedfellows, I immediately thought Rand Paul and Eric Holder.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

GOFF: I mean, who would have ever thunk it? And so, yeah. No. We're actually seeing some real interesting consensus on this issue. I think it's a long time coming and I - but I think it's really not that surprising. I mean, I know Rand Paul is sort of perceived as like the friend, libertarian, wackiness. But aside from that, there's a real - in terms of those who care about fiscal - being fiscally conservative and being fiscally responsible - our country is wasting billions of dollars on the industrial prison complex and trying to solve this issue of crime and we're not getting anywhere.

So people actually care about being fiscally conservative, I think, have come around and seen that our population's increased by a third since 1980, our prison population has increased by 800 percent and that's not helping our economy.

HEADLEE: No, it's very expensive. Well, let me ask you then, Mary Kate. Maybe there's a better chance at this kind of thing going forward...

CARY: Oh, yeah. I mean, just even on the right, the legislation that's going to come forward that Holder is endorsing is Dick Durbin and Pat Leahy on the left, which is not a surprising combo. And then on the right, Rand Paul and Mike Lee are the cosponsors. And Mike Lee clerked for Judge Alito. He's a conservative constitutional lawyer, a fiscal conservative, and his dad was the solicitor general for President Reagan when a lot of this got enacted in the mid-eighties.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

CARY: So to have a fiscal conservative and a libertarian coming together on this, I think, is huge these days. And I can't imagine this isn't going to go forward. The billions and billions that this will save - we just can't afford to keep housing all of these criminals in a year of sequesters and era of tightened budgets. And I just don't see how it's not going to happen.

GOFF: And the last thing, too, in terms of economic impact, it's not just the prisons, right? It's the fact that these people don't get jobs when they get out.

CARY: Yeah.

GOFF: I mean...

CARY: It's a whole cycle.

GOFF: ...That's when it's becoming a long-term cycle for us, generation after generation.

HEADLEE: And in fact, there have been some states who've had to release prisoners simply because they're out of space.

CARY: Yeah. And the states are ahead of the federal government on this, in terms of revising their laws and getting these non-violent offenders out faster.

HEADLEE: So we could get this done quickly?

CARY: Yeah, I think we could.

HEADLEE: Mary Kate says yes. Keli?

GOFF: I don't know how quick it's going to be. I think it's a more realistic possibility, but then again, I said that about immigration reform about, you know, six months ago when you guys asked me...

CARY: Yeah. Good luck with that.

GOFF: ...So who the heck knows.

HEADLEE: Eric Holder is speaking about it today in front of the American Bar Association in San Francisco so we'll see where it goes from here. Mary Kate Cary is former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger with U.S. News and World Report. And Keli Goff is political correspondent for The Root. Thank you both.

CARY: Thank you.

GOFF: Thanks.

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