New York City Council passed two bills designed to guarantee safety and respect for all New Yorkers. The measures were championed by Communities United for Police Reform, a broad coalition of city groups, and will strengthen the existing ban on police profiling and establish independent oversight of the city's police department.
Today is a new day for New York City. The move reflects a growing alarm over NYPD policies and practices that violate the rights of thousands of New Yorkers and undermine police-community relationships – practices such as the discriminatory use of stop-and-frisk that waste valuable public dollars, while producing no measurable impact on public safety.
Criticism is mounting, not only in the council, but also in federal court, where the legality of these practices is being questioned. Those same questions are echoed in the homes of regular New Yorkers – a majority of whom disapprove of stop-and-frisk and two-thirds of whom support independent oversight of the department. The message is clear: it's time for New York City to turn away from an approach to policing that results in countless rights violations each year, while doing little to reduce crime, according to an analysis by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The bills passed by city council respond to increasing evidence that in too many cases the department has substituted stereotyping for real police work. A study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that in 2011, for example, 41.6% of all New Yorkers stopped by the NYPD were black and Latino men between the ages of 14 and 24 years old, despite the fact that that these groups make up a mere 4.7% of the city's population. The department has continued to defend these discriminatory tactics, despite evidence that they do not even succeed on their own terms, failing to take guns off the street or to significantly reduce crime. In more than 99% of all 2011 stops, for example, no gun was retrieved. And in the first three months of 2013, crime dropped, even as stops also tapered, undermining the department's claim that stop-and-frisk is responsible for the city's lowered crime rate.
All of this suggests that the department's continued reliance on discriminatory tactics is not about what it takes to actually keep all New Yorkers (and those visiting the city) safe. Instead, it is about what it takes to convince some in New York City's whiter, wealthier communities that the administration and the department are serious about public safety.
For too long, too many city leaders have accepted discriminatory policing tactics on the assumption that the costs borne by the New Yorkers who are targeted are outweighed by the benefits enjoyed by communities that are not singled out for unlawful and abusive treatment. But the truth is the NYPD's discriminatory policies and practices have indirect negative impacts on all who live in the city, including its white residents. They allow the NYPD to substitute crude and ineffective strategies – like stopping New Yorkers on the basis of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender expression – for the sophisticated police work one might expect from the nation's largest local law enforcement agency. In the process, they position NYPD officers as adversaries instead of allies of many of the communities they are charged with protecting, reducing willingness to report crime and making all New Yorkers less safe.
It is becoming increasingly apparent, then, that the costs of massive spending on ineffective policing strategies extend beyond those borne by the individuals who are unlawfully targeted in the streets each day. But the most powerful argument for increased NYPD accountability has nothing to do with financial costs and benefits and everything to do with what we, as New Yorkers, allow to be done in our names. And it is about staying true to the city's own legacy of innovation and the conviction that here – if nowhere else – we can find a way to keep everyone safe without sacrificing anyone's rights.