By Joseph D. McNamara
A federal judge ruled Monday that the stop-and-frisk policies of the New York City Police Department were unconstitutional. That same day, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department will pull back from prosecuting low-level drug offenders to avoid triggering harsh mandatory sentences.
Both decisions reflect fundamental changes in U.S. law enforcement practices. The resulting strident opposition to the changes and equally adamant support illuminate the deep disagreements in the nation's unresolved racial divide.
Holder pointed out that mandatory sentences fell disproportionately on minority communities and had led to grossly overcrowded prisons. Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the New York police policy violated the Constitution — police are most often stopping and frisking innocent male minorities.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly quickly defended the policy. They both argued that the tactics had greatly reduced violence and crime — and the number of minority crime victims. Supporters of mandatory sentences and stop-and- frisk contend that, most importantly, policy changes would lead to far higher crime levels.
My decade-long experience as a beat officer in New York's Harlem, the highest crime area in the city during the 1960s, when crime soared, and as police chief of Kansas City, Missouri, and San Jose, California, during the high-crime 1970s and '80s, convinced me that police tactics and judicial sentencing policies do affect crime rates.
It is also true, however, that many other variables play a significant role. Demographic and economic factors, community culture and leadership, education, unemployment, the patterns of local drug use and gangs, drug enforcement efforts and police crime reporting practices are all factors.
My years as a beat cop taught me truths that were invaluable as police chief. I learned that the magnitude of the evil imposed on African-Americans by slavery didn't just vanish with the Emancipation Proclamation. It still contributed to the high rates of black-on-black violence and crime, often by black youths against poor people in their communities, which were ill-served by indifferent police, courts and correctional organizations.
Drug War enforcement did not reduce drug use, but Bureau of Justice statistics show that mandatory minimum sentencing disproportionately filled prisons with low-level black offenders to the point where, according to the most recent data, roughly 80 percent of young African-Americans can expect to be jailed during their life time. Since the recidivism rate is around 68 percent it is no surprise that many inner-city African-American communities suffer from exceedingly high victimization. Forty-nine percent of homicide victims are African-American, despite the fact that blacks make up only 13 percent of the population.
Nonetheless, it is understandable that an innocent African-American, confronted and frisked by an armed, uniformed officer, may feel that his dignity as a man is violated, creating a potentially violent encounter. It is important that such situations are perceived as an officer taking necessary action to protect neighborhood residents, at their bequest.
During the 18 years I served as police chief, I attended countless community meetings throughout both cities. I often heard residents complain about sporadic police encounters. Inevitably, however, the minority community would admonish, "Chief, don't mistake what we're saying. We don't want less policing. We want more, but we want it to be without racial bias."
As part of good management, police departments should be assigning the most cops to higher crime areas which, unfortunately, are often among the poor in minority neighborhoods. They require more policing, not less. People in those areas, in my experience, will accept that most police interactions will be with minority youth. So the burden for the police agencies is to establish community trust and ensure that cops behave professionally as they do their work.
I made it mandatory for beat officers and their superiors to attend and participate in neighborhood meetings. Cops who thought a community hated them and sided with law-breakers quickly learned differently. The local residents also began to see officers as dedicated and caring — not as members of an occupying army.
It didn't solve all problems, of course. But it did go a long way toward establishing enough trust so that when inevitable difficulties and misunderstandings arose, people would withhold judgment until all the facts were in. Which is all that we could ask. Ultimately, increased public participation created a partnership supporting police actions, which helped make San Jose the safest large city in the nation at that time.
No one can predict for sure that crime will increase if police stop-and-frisk policies are eliminated. But the New York Police Department's promise to improve the process deserves consideration when the federal appellate court reviews the decision.
While the stop-and-frisk policies can be re-evaluated, common sense tells us that prison populations can and should be reduced. It is time to put aside the hysterical rhetoric of the Drug War, because it causes far more harm to lock up drug users than to use viable alternatives, like drug treatment or community service work for minor offenses.
The federal government declared a war on drugs in 1914 by passing the Harrison Act, which first made drug possession and use a crime. More than a century later, prohibition of drugs enriches drug cartels and corrupt officials. There have been unprecedented levels of drug use and drug gang violence, while minor, non-violent drug offenders were given severe mandatory sentences. It would be better to repeal unworkable drug sentencing laws than to have the attorney general try an end run — but it is still well past time to stop making drug cartels rich and turning minor users into career criminals.
The judge stated that she did not rule on whether or not stop and frisk reduces crime but only on the constitutionality of the NYPD policies. The appeal courts will ultimately rule on the program's constitutionality. But ultimately the public will need to vote on the appropriateness of the methods police can use to protect safety.
(Joseph D. McNamara is a Reuters columnist but the opinions expressed are his own.)