October 21, 2014

Editorial: Police Unions’ Valid Role


It should not be necessary to endorse the police unions’ position in the stop-and-frisk case to appreciate that they have a distinct interest in keeping it alive.

And so the claim by Public Advocate Letitia James that the unions are unnecessarily prolonging the process for implementing changes in police procedures in accordance with the ruling 14 months ago by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin that the NYPD had used stop-and-frisk unconstitutionally on a widespread basis should be taken with a large grain of salt.

When she proclaimed Oct. 15 outside the U.S. Court of Appeals, “Enough is enough—these reforms cannot be further delayed,” it was hard to see any “irreparable harm” in doing so. The number of stop-and-frisks in the early part of the de Blasio administration has slowed to a trickle compared to the 685,000 conducted in 2011, the peak year under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Police Department. For that matter, by the time Mr. Bloomberg left office, the number of stops had drastically declined, to about 194,000 in 2013.

The soaring 2011 figure, once it was publicly disclosed early the following year, created an outcry so great that even before testimony was given before Ms. Scheindlin about blatant abuses of the rights of those detained by cops without legal grounds for doing so, the NYPD sharply departed from its prior mandate. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has cited a memo from then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in the early spring of 2012 directing cops to forget about previous “goals” for stops in which quantity was rewarded, and instead focus on “quality” stops, as the primary reason for the drop-off. The fact that despite the decline in stops, crime—particularly murders—continued to fall significantly as well added to the momentum away from abuses of the practice.

An increase in shootings this year—even as crime in general has continued to fall—raised some concerns about whether the NYPD and its officers had gone too far in the other direction as stops plummeted even faster. And so it’s not clear how much urgency exists for implementing the reforms prescribed by Ms. Scheindlin but subsequently put on hold by the Federal appeals court after it concluded she had created concerns about her impartiality with some of her public statements.

Those who criticize the police unions for trying to jump in after the trial concluded overlook the fact that they were not initially unified in their view of stop-and-frisk at its peak during the Bloomberg administration.

A hard line in favor of the practice was taken by Sergeants’ Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins, who told us back then that he favored “a wide net” for frisks—precisely the area where Judge Scheindlin found the NYPD ran afoul of the Constitution, and rightly so.

PBA President Pat Lynch took a more-nuanced view of the situation, arguing that a mania for numbers that was characteristic of Mr. Bloomberg’s reign had proved counterproductive, placing unreasonable pressure on his members to make stops and in the process alienating them from some segments of the minority community.

What the two men have always had in common, along with their fellow police-union leaders, is a determination to uphold the rights of their members in the event that the court case led to changes in police procedures. Once Mr. Bloomberg left office and Mayor de Blasio made clear he would discontinue the prior administration’s appeal of Judge Scheindlin’s decision, that gave the unions added incentive to intervene in the case. Any changes in police procedure affecting their members are typically negotiated with the city.

The unions’ concern here is legitimate, and there’s no evidence that prolonging the appeal is having an adverse impact in minority communities.