August 19, 2013


Razzle Dazzle

Bloomberg Alarmed For His Legacy, Not Safety

By Richard Steier

The way Mayor Bloomberg reacted to Judge Shira Scheindlin’s decision that the stop-and-frisk program as operated by the NYPD was unconstitutional, you would have thought the department was taking away his badge and gun and ordering him to go for substance-abuse treatment.

In his case, the addiction was to denial, in several respects. One concerned the psychic damage that misuse of stop-and-frisk had done to some of the mostly minority residents who were wrongly targeted on numerous occasions in recent years. Another involved believing that he could convince the public of the great harm he predicted would befall the city as a result of Judge Scheindlin’s ruling. And perhaps most important was his inability to admit that the stop-and-frisk program had raged out of control because of his penchant for statistical measures of performance, no matter how flawed, or even that the NYPD over the preceding 16 months appeared to have belatedly moved to correct the mistakes of himself and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

His administration has engaged in a peculiar balancing act for more than a year: while stop-and-frisks have dropped significantly—something Mr. Kelly has attributed to a combination of redeployment and better training—the department seems decidedly ambivalent about getting out what should be good news.

Curious Delay on Latest Stats

A reduction in stops of more than 100,000 for the first quarter of 2013 compared to a year earlier was not announced until May 3, 33 days after the end of the quarter. But that seems like instant access compared to the turnaround for the second quarter of the year: as this newspaper went to press Aug. 19, a full seven weeks had elapsed since the end of the quarter, and the latest stop-and-frisk numbers still hadn’t been released. It was almost as if the administration was holding them back to forestall people from concluding that the program could be run in compliance with the Constitution without mayhem resulting.

The only plausible reason for withholding news about a further dramatic decline in stops would be that, combined with the stunning and continued drop in homicides over the first half of the year, it would badly wound the argument the Mayor and Mr. Kelly have continued to make that any restrictions on the stop-and-frisk program will make the public less safe, particularly in minority areas. The dovetailing of the declines in murders and stops makes clear that if anything the wildly escalating number of stops until they reached 685,000 for 2011 and 203,000 for the first quarter of 2012 was counterproductive: besides cops wasting their time stopping people whose behavior hadn’t warranted it, the overindulgence soured relations between them and minority residents so that some of them were unlikely to report information about wrongdoing because of either anger or concerns that any additional contacts with officers could create trouble they didn’t need.

The strident protests of the Mayor and Mr. Kelly about Judge Scheindlin’s decision and her motivations seemed rooted more in trying to limit the public-relations damage to their legacies that’s done by having a Federal monitor appointed to oversee stop-and-frisk. 

They found reliable echoes in the editorial pages of the Daily News and the Post and from a willfully ignorant columnist at each paper, but that didn’t seem to be helping much in the battle for public opinion outside those cloistered worlds.

As if sleep-walking through his worst nightmare, the Mayor would discover the day after the court ruling that a Quinnipiac poll showed the dramatic rise of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio—the harshest critic of the NYPD and Mr. Bloomberg among the three leading Democratic candidates to succeed him—to front-runner status, having jumped nine points in just over two weeks to vault past City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

PBA: Blame Cop Shortage

Even as the Post painted apocalyptic visions—quoting one unidentified cop—of New York turning into Chicago because of the purported lack of vigilant policing that would result from Judge Scheindlin’s ruling, a striking counterpoint was provided by Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch.

He wasn’t happy with the ruling, but for considerably more-nuanced reasons than the Mayor and Mr. Kelly, saying in a statement that it was “unnecessarily complex and fails to address the root of the problem. Quotas for police activities like summonses and stop, question and frisks are a direct result of inadequate funding of the NYPD and understaffing in local precincts. The Mayor, City Council and agency head should properly fund the NYPD and allow police officers to exercise their professional discretion and judgment, just as they had prior to the dramatic increase in stops caused by quotas.”

The city could respond that Mr. Lynch was speaking as an advocate for his members rather than as an unbiased observer. But his complaint about the problem being attributable to shortages of available cops echoes Mr. Kelly’s explanation a year ago for how he had morphed from a past advocate of community policing into someone presiding over an intensified initiative that had soured police/

community relations: he had 6,000 fewer cops under his command than at the start of the administration, requiring him to deploy more aggressively those who were available.

Presumably he had lobbied the Mayor for funding to replace a good portion of those lost to attrition and been rebuffed. It might have been expected that these remarks in an interview with NY 1 anchor Errol Louis, combined with the growing outcry in the City Council as well as in minority communities, would be enough to prod the Mayor into finding a way to afford more cops. Mr. Bloomberg has remained rigid on the subject, however.

Legal Risk Obvious

It might also have been expected that as stop-and-frisks reached unprecedented heights because they were part of the performance-rating data used to evaluate both street cops and precinct commanders, someone would ask a question about the legal risks involved. Meeting quotas for summonses is a fairly straightforward, if sometimes unpopular, exercise: you are citing specific violations. Finding justification for a stop is less easy than tagging illegal parkers or speeders: there has to be reasonable suspicion that a person recently committed or is about to commit a crime.

Attaching quotas to stop-and-frisks created the danger that cops would contrive justifications for making the stops where no legitimate ones existed; in some cases, evidence has been produced that they did so at the urging of their commanders, who shared the fear that not meeting the quotas could subject them to adverse personnel action. This likelihood created possibilities with more serious repercussions for the city than having motorists irate or store-owners aggrieved over what they claimed was Mickey Mouse enforcement: the violation of the Fourth Amendment governing the grounds for searches and seizures.

The Police Department has lawyers who are cognizant of the danger; so, too, does the Corporation Counsel’s Office, which defended the city against the class-action lawsuits brought against stop-and-frisk. Whatever their misgivings or warnings about the way the program was potentially being abused, someone higher up decided to take his chances until the outcry grew so great that the department was forced to react and directed officers to focus on “quality” stops rather than quantity. None of the people involved—Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Kelly, or Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo—is stupid, and so it had to have been stupidity’s first cousin, arrogance, that led the city to jump head-first into this legal jackpot and then do little to try to mitigate the damage.

Didn’t Seek Compromises

No serious effort was made to reach settlements in the court cases, or to find a workable compromise with Council Members pushing an anti-profiling bill that policing experts and the unions agree could seriously inhibit enforcement activity that may be enacted into law over the Mayor’s veto on Aug. 22. It was as if he was counting on the tabloids creating enough of a public uproar to allow the city to prevail, just as their endorsements along with that of the New York Times in 2009 had allowed him to make an end-run around the voters in the manner in which he sought a third term to carve out a narrow victory with the help of more than $100 million he spent on the campaign.

It’s a tougher task, though, to buy or bully a Federal Judge, and until now he has been unsuccessful in attempts to sway the one Council Member he needs to thwart an override attempt on the anti-profiling bill. As to why he has taken this course, the explanation may be that, as one character in “The Sopranos” said to the leader of the crime family, he has a problem with people trying to limit his authority. Mr. Bloomberg tolerated it during his first two terms, when key advisers like Marc Shaw, Bill Cunningham and Peter Madonia had his ear and more experience than he did, allowing them to warn him in advance of what were certain to be losing battles. There is an increasing feeling among reporters who cover the Mayor that he has fewer advisers of that stature who can curb his impulses, and may not have any whose counsel he takes if it’s at odds with what he wants to do, now that he’s convinced he knows everything about the job and the city.

A Faulty Conflation

Too often during his third term, however, his public pronouncements have been so glib that they raise questions about just how much he’s actually learned. It leads to an unfortunate rationale for the until-recently ever-rising number of minorities subjected to stop-and-frisks: Mr. Bloomberg’s argument that it’s because most crimes in the city are committed by minorities. The fact that this is true does not, however, allow for the inference that most minorities commit crimes, nor provide justification for stopping them under any circumstances without reasonable suspicion. If he believes otherwise, then the greatest service his advisers did for him early in his tenure was counseling him to keep such thoughts to himself.

That glibness was also present in his reaction to Judge Scheindlin’s ruling. “People have a right to walk down the street without being targeted by the police...But people also have the right to walk down the street without being killed or mugged. And for those rights to be protected, we have to give the members of our Police Department the tools they need to do their jobs without being micro-managed and second-guessed every day by a judge or a monitor.”

Already Micro-Managed

The irony of that last remark is that taped conversations of the former ranking officers of Brooklyn’s 81st Precinct, as well as comments by union leaders and ordinary cops, have highlighted the downgrading of some crimes and the obsession with stop-and-frisks being the result of police commanders’ fears of “being micro-managed and second-guessed” by top brass at 1 Police Plaza during the monthly CompStat meetings, where any deviation from expectations and targets can have severe consequences for careers.

None of the performance criteria during the years when the program was running out of control included negative personnel actions for not following the legal standard for doing stops. That explains why the Mayor and Mr. Kelly found themselves in the position of railing against the basic unfairness of Judge Scheindlin acting in the role of someone running a CompStat meeting and holding them accountable without mincing words.