Stop-And-Frisk: Smart Policing Or Violation Of Rights?

A federal judge says New York City's stop-and-frisk policies have violated the rights of thousands of people. Guest Host Celeste Headlee discusses the ruling with Scott Burns of the National District Attorneys Association and criminal justice professor Delores Jones-Brown.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Reaction is coming in from New York City today. That's what a federal judge said one of the city's high profile policing tactics violated thousands of New Yorkers' constitutional rights. Judge Shira Scheindlin called the implementation of the so-called stop-and-frisk policy in New York, quote, a policy of indirect racial profiling.

In a few minutes we'll hear from one of the plaintiffs in that case, a young man who was stopped by police and frisked while celebrating his 18th birthday. But first, let's dig into the 195 page ruling itself. Judge Scheindlin did not ban the use of stop-and-frisk. But she did order an independent monitor to supervise the NYPD and make sure the department is acting constitutionally. Here's what New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to say about the ruling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: This is a very dangerous decision made by a judge that I think just does not understand how policing works and what is compliant with the U.S. Constitution as determined by the Supreme Court.

HEADLEE: We're joined now by Delores Jones-Brown. She's a criminal justice professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. And also with us is Scott Burns, the executive director at the National District Attorneys Association. Welcome to the program, both of you.

SCOTT BURNS: Thank you.

DELORES JONES-BROWN: Thank you for having us.

HEADLEE: Let me begin with you, Delores. You were on the program earlier this summer and you were talking about this very issue. What do you think of this ruling?

JONES-BROWN: I think it's an excellent ruling and it's an opportunity for the NYPD to step up and become the professional organization that it is seen as around the country. The judge has said that the way stop-and-frisk has been carried out in the city violates the Constitution, it violates notions of liberty, and it quite frankly makes the department look bad. Anytime you have a practice that 90 percent of the time you are wrong when you say that you're acting reasonably, it does not bode well for the professionalism of the organization. Now that the court has affirmed the fact that it is not an appropriate way to exercise police activity, then we're hoping that the department will go forth and do a much better job of policing all the people in the city of New York in a Constitutional fashion.

HEADLEE: So, Scott Burns, you know, one of the things I found kind of striking about the ruling - and I haven't read all 195 pages, but let me read this one thing that Judge Scheindlin wrote. She says, I emphasize at the outset, this case is not about the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk in deterring or combating crime. What's your reaction to that, because that's often been a criticism of stop-and-frisk, that it doesn't actually result in a lot of charges?

BURNS: But it is a preventative measure. I don't think there's any question that across the country, some 700,000 law enforcement officers who have been using stop-and-frisk tactics for years - it prevents crime. Homicides are down nationwide 50 percent over the last 30 years and we can look at New York. Over 1,200 homicides in 1996, 400 last year, and if Commissioner Kelly and those on the ground, real law enforcement officers, not a federal judge who I'm sure has never donned a badge or gun, they will tell you that stop-and-frisk saves lives and prevents crime.

HEADLEE: Well, let me take that to you then, Delores Jones-Brown. That, in fact, violent crimes are at a four-decade low. Could it be that programs like stop-and-frisk, that are used in various versions all around the country, could it be because of programs like stop-and-frisk that is bringing the crime rates down?

JONES-BROWN: Well, the first pushback is that San Diego had the lowest - or had the greatest decline in crime without using an aggressive stop-and-frisk approach. The statistics from 2012, and for the first quarter of 2013 for New York City show that stops are down precipitously. Twenty-two percent from 2012 and 51 percent from the first quarter of the 2013. And murder is also down. The police commissioner has said that there were other strategies that the department used, one related to a gang initiative and the other related to domestic violence, that is likely responsible for that reduction in murder. And so the notion that stop-and-frisk was responsible for all of, or even a significant portion of the crime's decline in the city, cannot be demonstratively proven.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the ruling on New York's stop-and-frisk programs. With us are criminal justice professor Delores Jones-Brown, whom you just heard, and executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, Scott Burns. And Scott, let me ask you about this, because one of the things which is often said, especially in New York, is that it's simply, as the judge said, racial profiling. It's not implemented universally, that they're way more likely to stop brown or black, especially young men, even in neighborhoods where minorities make up a tiny portion of the population there.

BURNS: Well, a couple of things. I've talked to those that observed the proceedings, and I think it's fair to say from many people's viewpoint this judge was predisposed from the beginning. There's no question that there's going to be an appeal. The second thing is, honestly, law enforcement officers across this country - and that includes New York - make decisions not every minute, but every second. And to try and decree and then monitor women and men that go out every day and say whether or not they believe that there was reasonable suspicion, that criminal activity was afoot - a cornerstone of a United States Constitutional decision, Terry v. Ohio, is ludicrous. It is ludicrous.

HEADLEE: Professor Jones-Brown, let me play you another comment that came from Mayor Bloomberg after the decision. The court ruled that an independent monitor, as I said, needs to oversee the police department, and the city council is trying to implement an inspector general to oversee stop-and-frisk. Here is Mayor Bloomberg's reaction to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

BLOOMBERG: We have enough problems now. You're a police officer. You have to know what orders to follow. If somebody pulls a gun and you want to get home to your family, you don't have time to say, well, now wait a second, the commissioner said one thing, the monitor said another, and the IG said another. By that time, you're dead. And I would like to see you go to the funeral and explain to the family why their son or husband or father is not coming home at night.

HEADLEE: What do you think, Delores? Is there a risk of over-regulating the police force?

JONES-BROWN: I think the mayor, one, is overly emotional about a practice that does not affect anyone who looks like him very often at all. And he loses sight of the fact that there are innocent civilians who have lost their life at the hands of police officers because the police over-suspected a young black or brown young man of being a criminal when he was not. And so because the government gets paid to serve the people, if we're going to strike the balance of safety, it seems to me it would be proper and constitutional to strike the balance in favor of innocent civilians, as opposed to the police officers who make a conscious decision to make - to take a job that is obviously a challenging job.

HEADLEE: Let me put this to you, Scott, because, I mean, let's take this down to the street level here for just a moment. Every single one of us knows of a friend of ours who may be Latino or black who has been stopped just on almost no suspicion of them just walking down the street. For whatever reason, police officers are looking for a suspect, they see a black or brown person walking down the street, usually a young male, and they stop them. I mean, that has to instill in some of our young minorities a distrust of the police, even a bitterness toward the police force to a certain extent. When does stop-and-frisk programs become counterproductive?

BURNS: Yeah, I think communities tell us that. And obviously there has to be a balance between all of our constitutional rights. But we also have the right to be safe. And for a police officer to stop someone simply because they are an African-American or Hispanic, Latino, obviously, is not right.

HEADLEE: But it happens.

BURNS: It happens, but it's not a perfect system. We also prevent thousands of crimes every year across this country, including in New York City. When a police officer says 99 out of 100 times, I believe there is, quote, reasonable suspicion to believe criminal activity is afoot, close quote, approaches a potential suspect, simply questions them. That's what this is about, and if he or she believes that that person may have a weapon, they do what is called a Terry pat-down on the outside of the clothing to see if somebody has a gun and is going to shoot the officer in the face or not. And then question them, why are you walking behind this jewelry store, all three of you, at two o'clock in the morning? I'd just like to know that.

HEADLEE: Scott Burns is the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. He joined us from our Washington studio. Also with us is Professor Delores Jones-Brown, criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York. She joined us from her home in New Jersey. Obviously, there is much more to be said about these programs, but unfortunately we're out of time. We're going to have to end it there. Thank you both so much for joining us.

BURNS: Thank you.

JONES-BROWN: Thank you.

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