Updated: 11:18 am, Wed Mar 11, 2015

Editorial: Fixing Stop-and-Frisk

By Richard Steier

There was a distinct irony to Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch’s remark last week that to understand how to apply the NYPD’s new stop-and-frisk regulations, “police officers are going to have to travel with an attorney.”

The revisions in the department’s policy were required because for too long during the Bloomberg administration, the Mayor and the Police Commissioner were heedless of the legal grounds for making stops, as laid out in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling nearly a half-century ago. The result was an incredible spiral in stops—even as crime continued to fall—that peaked at 685,000 in 2011, and the conclusion two years later by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin that officers were frequently violating the constitutional rights of those they targeted.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent the last two years of his administration protesting that easing up on the stops would cause crime to skyrocket, even as the NYPD drastically reduced them once Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a directive that officers should stop worrying about “quantity” and focus instead on “quality.” In other words, actually follow the law rather than worrying about meeting quotas he had imposed, which were pleasing to his numbers-obsessed boss.

Mr. Lynch, who to his credit complained about the illegal quotas at the time rather than hunkering down with the Mayor, last week lamented that the department, under pressure from the Federal court system, was making his members bear “responsibility for the problem that [the old regime] created,” and by doing so making their jobs more difficult and dangerous. Sergeants’ Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins contended the changes would lead to “hesitation — and potentially an avoidance of duties” at a time when he believes crime could be rising.

There is that possibility. But just as the NYPD under Mr. Kelly adjusted to the growing outcry over misuse of stop-and-frisk, we would expect that Police Commissioner Bill Bratton would speedily revamp the new policy if it was causing problems.

Among the changes ordered are that the most-frequent justification used by officers — “furtive movements”— by itself cannot be used to justify a stop, and that officers cannot rely on hunches as their primary basis for conducting one. The feeling was that the first reason was too broadly applied —“adjusting the waistband” is far more likely to be a consequence of wearing baggy pants than of securing a gun — and, considering that only about 12 percent of stops produced either a summons or an arrest, cops’ hunches seemed to owe less to street-smarts than to meeting quotas.

Even as the pendulum has swung sharply in the other direction over the past three years when it comes to stops, crime has continued to fall. Mr. Bratton will no doubt be watching carefully to ensure that it hasn’t swung too far to maintain the current level of safety in the city.