New York City has changed for the better in the past 20 years. As an eighth-grader I trekked to the big city with several classmates on a school trip. Not only did we, as 12- and 13-year-olds, marvel at the tall skyscrapers, we seemed to identify with the grittiness of the city.
We noticed prostitutes everywhere we went. Many of the kids on the trip ventured into Chinatown to purchase fireworks and switchblade knives.
That was 1992.
The nation’s most populous city was considered dangerous as it found itself in the middle of the violent crack cocaine epidemic. Crime was rampant. Over 2,000 were murdered that year across the five boroughs.
Back then Times Square looked like a red-light district. Our teachers told us to watch our wallets and avoid talking to strangers when walking through. The city’s most popular tourist destination was filled with shady stores and interesting characters.
Much has changed since then. Times Square is clean and vibrant with dozens of neon signs. It’s friendly and welcoming. It is probably one of the safest spots in any big city throughout the country. That speaks to the changes in New York City’s crime rate as a whole. They, like most other cities, have seen sharp decreases in crime. In 2012 there were only 414 murders in NYC.
The city’s last two mayors are trying to take as much of the credit as they can.
New York City’s previous mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, is credited with starting CompStat meetings in the New York City police department. This technique of looking at crime statistics helped police identify high-crime areas and helped develop strategies to reduce violent crime.
Current Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wanted to do better. Enter the infamous stop-and-frisk policy.
This policy allowed and encouraged police officers to stop and frisk anyone who looked suspicious as they were walking down the street. Cops followed their orders, stopping and frisking almost 4.5 million people since 2004.
Bloomberg and Kelly said the idea behind stop-and-frisk was to stop crimes before they happened and to get guns of the street.
Well, a U.S. District Judge ruled their policy to be unconstitutional because they violate the Fourth (protection against unreasonable seizures) and Fourteenth Amendments (equal protection guaranteed under the law) to the U.S. Constitution.
Bloomberg isn’t going to let the Constitution slow him down, though. He called a press conference after Judge Shira Scheindlin released her decision during which Bloomberg said, the judge has “made it clear she was not interested in the crime reductions.”
To be fair here are the numbers since 2004: 4.4 million stops, of which 87 percent of those stopped were Black or Latino. Only 12 percent of the stops lead to an arrest or a ticket. Knives and other weapons were confiscated in 1.5 percent of the stops and guns were found in less than one-tenth of one percent of the stops.
It’s also worth nothing there’s no easy way to tell how much the policy may have reduced crime.
Either way, crime reductions aren’t relevant, wrote Scheindlin in her decision because “many police practices may be useful for fighting crime — preventive detention or coerced confessions, for example — but because they are unconstitutional they cannot be used, no matter how effective.”
This is a victory for all of us, even if it’s a small one. Too often judges in America’s court system side with the police in their efforts to take away our rights. This week, Judge Scheindlin sided with us. This week we get to keep a few more of our rights. The rights the Constitution was designed to protect lest mayors like Bloomberg forget.