NYPD officers are in an impossible situation
All New Yorkers, whether they hail from upstate or live in the Big Apple, should know certain things before stepping foot on the streets of New York City, the best city in the world. New York is the city everyone wants to see before they die; a city where the smallest apartments can rent for several thousand dollars a month. As Mayor Bloomberg has pointed out time and again, New York is a relatively safe place despite what the tabloids proclaim every day as they report on the risks of walking the streets. Maybe things are better, but there are still problems and the New York Police Department has its work cut out for it. Even with more than 34,000 uniformed police officers on the payroll, we know they can’t be everywhere. The fact that even a few of these cops turn out to be crooks is also not conducive to public confidence.
Now there is the problem of a stop and frisk policy. Cops are pretty good at spotting would-be perpetrators. Years ago when I was riding around in a police car doing some consulting for the then police commissioner, the cops who were driving pointed out three tough looking hombres and said, “professor, there is a crime waiting to happen.” Of course, you may know who is likely to be a crook but you can’t arrest anyone before something happens. Right now, Ray Kelly, the excellent New York Police Commissioner, known as the “PC,” is in a tough spot.
His police can spot a would-be “perp” and search him, perhaps finding some dope or contraband or a weapon. For many, this “stop and frisk” policy has racist overtones. We know that your chance of having to submit to a random “stop and frisk” is far greater if you have minority status than if you do not. So we might call this “walking or talking while black or Hispanic.” It is true that our prisons are overwhelmingly populated by these two groups. It is also true that blacks and Hispanics are too likely to be victimized themselves. When a person of color is killed, raped or robbed, our society often pays less attention than if the victim was a white man wearing a Rolex. Of course, racism being what it is, people of color have far less of a chance of making it into the upper income echelons.
To fully understand the dilemma, consider how you would feel if your son was stopped and frisked on the street by a couple of uniformed officers. This kind of thing can be traumatic. The effects can last for the rest of his life. It can happen to anyone. A while back, it happened to Bob Dylan as he was taking a walk in New Jersey. But you’d have to be living in a different universe not to know that your chances of being picked up if you are black or Hispanic are incontrovertibly greater than if you have less pigment in your skin.
That said, if you ask the general population their opinion, you had better believe that they’ll take the stop and frisk as long as it is someone else who is getting frisked. In the end, this is why we have to pay our police well and train them well. They are always in an impossible situation. They have to be the front people for the way in which we have chosen to organize our society, too often based on wealth and skin color.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 7/16/12