A federal judge Monday declared that the stop-and-frisk policy practiced by New York City police was an unconstitutional violation of privacy protections and a case of institutionalized racism.
The lesson is finally hitting home that racial profiling is not effective policing. It is a lesson being learned in Vermont where officials have taken steps to combat a demonstrated level of racial profiling.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would appeal the judge’s decision. He believes stop-and-frisk has been an effective crime-fighting tactic, despite the evidence and despite the ill will and mistrust it causes in many city neighborhoods.
Since 2004 New York police officers have made more than 4 million stops, according to I. Bennett Capers, a former federal prosecutor writing in The New York Times. Eighty-four percent of those stopped have been black or Hispanic. Only 6 percent led to arrests. Only one stop in 1,000 turned up a gun.
New York authorities say that minority residents are subject to stops more than whites are because there is more crime in poor neighborhoods, which are populated largely by minorities. But stop-and-frisk is not directed against criminals. It is directed mainly against innocent people because the stops are based not on suspicious activity or criminal behavior, but on the fact that one happens to live in a black neighborhood or happens to be black.
There are just as many illicit drugs on college campuses or in fancy neighborhoods as there are on the streets of poor neighborhoods. But it is the residents of the poor neighborhoods who get stopped. In addition, if police are looking for guns, then stopping blacks is not so helpful. It turns out white people are more likely to be carrying guns than blacks.
One result of the emphasis on stopping minorities is that they are more likely to be arrested for innocuous crimes such as possession of a joint of marijuana. This form of aggressive policing is one reason America’s prisons are holding more people than the prisons of any other nation and why minorities form a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. In recent decades prison populations have grown by 800 percent, according to The New York Times, even as the general population was growing by only 33 percent.
It has been called “the new Jim Crow,” a war waged against black America as a way, ostensibly, to fight crime. But for a black kid on the streets of the Bronx to be sent to jail while a white kid on the streets of Burlington is free to take a toke in peace is an instance of the reality of racism.
Bloomberg and others see a correlation between aggressive policing and sentencing and the decline in crime. Aggressive policing may have had some effect on crime numbers, but smart policing is likely to produce better long-term consequences. There is little doubt that harsh policies have ruined millions of lives and destroyed communities. Young men become alienated from all authority when they know they are under suspicion because of the color of their skin.
The other important development in law enforcement Monday was the announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that federal prosecutors would no longer push for long mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. It is yet another step in redressing the damage done over the years by the supposed war on drugs.
Combating drugs is still important. Vermonters have been alarmed in recent years by the rising tide of heroin use. But destroying communities and prosecuting a campaign of racial profiling are not the answer.
Racial profiling is lazy policing. Police need to respond to behavior that is actually suspicious or criminal. That is the lesson to be taken from the decision in the stop-and-frisk case. It is a lesson that police officials in Vermont have taken to heart.
We are at a historic turning point on issues of criminal justice in America. It is time to make America safe for all Americans.
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