One afternoon earlier this month, Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate and a potential mayoral candidate, held a press conference on the steps of City Hall to unveil a new report and suggest a modest reform. The New York Police Department has seen the number of people it has stopped and frisked skyrocket, often without yielding any evidence of a crime. Mr. de Blasio suggested the agency simply record the number and location of their stops, just as they record murder, thefts and rapes under CompStat, the computerized police accountability system that is credited with keeping the city’s plunging crime rate low.
A few hours later, Howard Wolfson, Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for communications and an old pal of Mr. de Blasio’s from their days on the Hillary Clinton Senate campaign, sent out a blistering response.
“When Bill de Blasio last served in the city’s executive branch there were 2,000 murders a year,” he said, referring to the public advocate’s tenure under former Mayor David Dinkins, a mayoralty that has lived on in the memory of Bloomberg’s supporters as a warning about the dangers of an unchecked bleeding heart lefty presiding over City Hall. “Today we are on track to have less than 500—a record new low. Mr. de Blasio may be nostalgic for the days when the ACLU set crime policy in this city, but most New Yorkers don’t want rampant crime to return … Make no mistake, we will not continue to be the safest big city in America if Mr. de Blasio has his way.”
The next day, Mr. de Blasio arranged another news conference to denounce Mr. Wolfson’s denunciation of him.
And so it has gone: With the 2013 mayoral election still over a year away, stop-and-frisk has emerged as one of the most important and fraught issue in the early days of the campaign.
Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer has been out front on the topic for nearly a year, visiting 19 churches and delivering a major address on the issue alongside Newark Mayor Cory Booker. (Privately, supporters of his scoff that Mr. de Blasio only jumped in once Mr. Stringer made it an issue.)
“Scott was out there early and pushing the issue; I’m happy about that,” said City Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, who is neutral in the 2013 mayor’s race and whose own arrest at last summer’s West Indian Day Parade by police unaware of who he was served to spark a call for reforms.
But it is not just the two of them. A week after Mr. de Blasio’s series of pressers, Council Speaker Christine Quinn—whose status as the early frontrunner has been solidified by her implicit vow to carry on the legacy of Mr. Bloomberg and by her current ability to wring concessions out of the other side of City Hall—coaxed out of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly a series of reforms that included greater training for officers. Then, John Liu, the city comptroller whose fundraising scandal threatens to derail his own mayoral ambitions, called for the practice to be outright abolished.
“This is not what a democratic society is about,” he told The Observer. “It smacks of martial law.”
Organizers are planning a massive protest on Father’s Day, hoping thousands of New Yorkers will turn out for a silent march up Fifth Avenue. George Gresham, the president of the powerful labor union 1199/SEIU, recently announced they couldn’t “ever support anyone who wants to be in the leadership of New York City if they are not speaking out against this policy of stop-and-frisk.”
For Mr. Wolfson, it is this desire that is motivating the denunciations of the administration’s police practices.
“You have a group of candidates running for office who know that they need to appeal to 40 percent plus one in a Democratic primary electorate—which is a very small percentage of people in this city—and they have positioned themselves accordingly, aided and abetted by the ACLU and The New York Times editorial board,” he said. “Anyone who is now running for mayor will have to pass the New York Times test on stop-and-frisk.”
He decried the fact that a “very small minority of people will decide who the next mayor is,” and suggested that a “credible Republican candidate” would be necessary to keep the contenders from promising to return the city to the scarred 1970s. (Remember, this is a man who used to advise Hillary Clinton.)
To Mr. de Blasio, such a response is “unbelievably off topic.”
“It was not mature, not serious,” he said. “It was name-calling, and by the way, strangely old-school. It was like something you would have heard in the 1980s national political discourse. To accuse someone of being so close to the ACLU? That is strangely out of time.”
Mr. Stringer concurred. “I resent that so much,” he said. “I grew up in this city all my life. I was here in the 1970s. I was here during Son of Sam. The A Train was a rolling crime scene. Nobody wants to go back to that, including me. But there are ways to be both tough on crime and smart on crime.”
There is little doubt that the NYPD has been stopping more and more New Yorkers on the street—ostensibly in the search for illegal handguns—questioning them and in many cases searching their cars or their pockets, and that the increased number of searches has not led to a corresponding increase in arrests. Last year, police collected 780 guns after stopping over 685,000 people. In 2003—back when the city’s crime rate was dropping, rather than stabilizing—police recovered 604 guns while only stopping 160,851 people. Mr. Bloomberg defended stop-and-frisk, as if his legacy depended upon it. He counts over 5,000 fewer murders in the city due to the practice (a number arrived at comparing the murder rate over the last ten years with the ten before, a period that includes the crime-ridden early 19990′s.) When an editorial in The New York Times called on the administration to be more like Philadelphia and curb the practice, Mayor Bloomberg shot back, “I just have to wonder what kind of world they are living in.”
The phrase stop and frisk has come to stand as a catchall for overzealous policing, but none of the candidates, including Mr. Liu, actually believe that the NYPD doesn’t have the right and the duty to stop someone they suspect of being a criminal. The current number, they concede, is too high, but they are unanimously reluctant to name a more appropriate figure. They call for a series of reforms that nibble around the margins instead, including greater oversight of the practice and more community policing. The City Council has proposed that police officers leave a business card with their name and rank with all suspects who are stopped but found to have nothing on them.
Politically, it is unclear how the issue will play out when voters go to the polls next summer. A recent Daily News poll found support divided, with half of the respondents finding the practice legitimate police work that keeps the city safe, and the other half calling it “racially insensitive.” Most of the opposition to the practice is centered around the poor, minority neighborhoods where the practice is most widespread, votes that seem most likely to go to Bill Thompson, the city’s former comptroller and the only African-American candidate in the race. (Mr. Thompson has been much more muted on the subject than his competitors, telling The Observer in an interview only that he thought the issue would play out in the mayor’s race as part of a broader discussion of policing issues.) All of the candidates expect that to change, as the practice grows more and more widespread, even if the notion of being pulled over by the police remains an abstract prospect for most white New Yorkers.
If there is significant oppo-sition among white voters to stop-and-frisk, it would mark a sea change in the way New Yorkers think about public safety. Since the days of Mr. Dinkins, and before, being called soft-on-crime meant a trip to political purgatory. And there hasn’t been anything like the Abner Louima incident or the Amado Diallo shooting that has galvanized popular opposition to the police.
“It is amazing. Stop and frisk has become police misconduct times 10,” said Mark Green, the former public advocate who made former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s oversight of the NYPD a central issue in his 2001 mayoral campaign.
“You have to be pretty smart to figure out exactly the political gains or costs. Are there some minority voters who are infuriated that this is happening to their neighborhood kids, and some white liberals who feel their ideology is being violated for no good purpose? Yes, yes. But whether that number is 2,500 people or 25,000 people, no one will know. And that number remains the difference between going to City Hall and going to political Palookaville—where I am,” he added.”
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