Advocates flock to stop and frisk hearing

October 10, 2012 3:17:36 PM PDT
The New York police department practice of stopping hundreds of thousands of people each year was in the spotlight Wednesday as city lawmakers considered a set of reforms that would appoint an inspector general to monitor the police department.

It is too soon to say what laws, if any, will result from City Council hearings on the proposals.

But after years of complaints that the practice discriminates against minorities, the hearings signal the public debate has gotten loud enough that lawmakers, not to mention candidates in next year's mayoral election, feel they have to be heard.

The police force is seen as a potent guardian of public safety in the post-Sept. 11 era but is also facing questions over matters ranging from an officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed drug suspect in February to the department's widespread monitoring of Muslims, as detailed in a series of recent articles by The Associated Press.

City Council member Jumaane Williams, who became a vocal critic after he was detained during the West Indian Day Parade two years ago, sponsored all four proposals being discussed.

"It is long past time to address the disparate ways that this city is being policed," he said, saying they have led to a police force that acts and is perceived differently in wealthy white neighborhoods and poor minority ones. "It is truly a tale of two cities."

The problems go beyond street stops, he said, noting Muslim surveillance. But stop and frisk is "the most palpable" issue, he said.

Michael Best, counselor to the mayor, testified for the city and said the tactic is a critical element in the department's broader crime fighting strategies.

"We believe that the vast majority of officers do their jobs professionally, including when they do stop, question and frisk, and it's an important part of our strategy," Best said, calling the proposals impractical and unnecessary.

The controversy is playing out amid the contest to succeed term-limited Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has defended the practice. All the likely top contenders have made a point of saying they are concerned about stop-and-frisks, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has near-total control over which efforts get to a council vote.

Quinn said she wants ongoing reform, but hasn't taken a stance on whether to support the proposals.

The atmosphere Wednesday was a somewhat charged, with the audience periodically breaking out into loud applause and being admonished to keep quiet, and with the racial divide over the issue visible even among council members themselves - at one point, Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster, who is black, said she thought a white council member's feelings would be different "if his father were an 88-year-old man who's being pulled over and called 'boy.'" Besides creating an inspector general's post, the measures would require officers to explain why they are stopping people, tell them when they have a right to refuse a search. Another proposal would give people more latitude to sue over stops they considered biased.

In stop-and-frisks, officers approach, question and sometimes pat down people police say were behaving suspiciously - acting like a lookout or carrying a pry bar, for example - but weren't necessarily sought in any particular crime.

The numbers have risen since Bloomberg took office in 2002. Officers made a record 684,330 of the stops last year, seven times the number in 2002. They stopped about 337,000 in the first six months of this year.

Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly credit the practice with deterring violence and helping drive down New York's crime rate to the lowest among the country's 25 most populous cities, as measured by the FBI.

"The last thing we need is to have some politician or judge getting involved with setting policy," Bloomberg said at an unrelated news conference Monday. "Because you won't be safe anymore. Today you are."

Associated Press writers Meghan Barr and Samantha Gross contributed to this report.

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