Sam Ferrera, Grade 10, Staff Writer
As the world takes a stand against the inconceivable murder of George Floyd and all such cases of police brutality, American cities are once against faced with the issue of how to respond to such egregious demonstrations of police misconduct. Ideas have been proposed as to methods of reforming the police to lower the likelihood of police brutality. However, there are reasons to be skeptical of simply “reforming” the police instead of altogether defunding and limiting the responsibilities of police forces like the New York Police Department (NYPD).
Activists, judges, lawyers, and civilians have been attempting to hold accountable if not reform the NYPD since its formation. For decades since the establishment of the NYPD, reforms regarding police misconduct have received little support from courts and civilians. Calls for police reform were ignored because the public saw the cops as doing a public good, regardless of how aggressive or violent they acted to carry out this public good.
In the modern era, most policing reform, both in New York City and around the nation, has centered around the racially-discriminant consequences of the Supreme Court ruling in Terry v. Ohio and the creation of the “Terry stop.” In Terry v. Ohio, the Court held that while stop-and-frisks constituted a search and or seizure under the Fourth Amendment, their brief and non-expansive nature allowed for a lower standard of evidence to be needed for them to be conducted. In short, the police no longer needed a court order to detain and search people, so long as they had “reasonable suspicion” to believe there was a crime taking place.
The Terry stop covers stop-and-frisks, traffic stops, and “pretextual stops,” in which an individual is stopped in their car for a minor infraction in order for the police to investigate a large infraction they have “reasonable suspicion” you have committed. In an eerie foreshadowing of a future to come, the lone dissenting opinion of Justice Douglas warned that “to give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path.”
The effects of Terry stops in NYC have harmed people of color. A trifecta of unnecessary stops, racial profiling, and “broken-windows policing” (which encourages police to prosecute lower crimes in order to prevent more serious crimes) has caused many people of color in NYC, particularly black Americans, to fear those trained to protect them.
The first substantial call for reform in the modern era came from Daniels v. The City of New York. This class-action lawsuit was filed in 1999 in the aftermath of the murder of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who was shot by police officers 41 times as he stood by his Bronx apartment building. The suit argued that the policy of stop-and-frisk violated the Fourth Amendment because it constituted an unlawful search and seizure. Moreover, it violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it discriminated against people of color. The plaintiffs had some pretty damning statistics: in 1997 and 1998, 45,000 stop-and-frisks were performed, and 35,000 did not result in arrest. Furthermore, 16 African Americans were stopped for every arrest made. The case was settled, resulting in a court mandate requiring the NYPD to maintain a written anti-racial profiling policy that complied with the U.S. and New York State Constitutions and was binding on all NYPD officers. In addition, it required that the NYPD audit officers who engaged in stop-and-frisks determine whether the stop-and-frisks were based on reasonable suspicion and whether they were being documented.
Unfortunately, the case resulted in little actual change in the NYPD’s behaviors. Another class-action lawsuit, Floyd v. The City of New York was filed for the exact same reasons in 2013. Thankfully, after Floyd v. the City of New York, there were steep declines in the number of stops performed — down from a peak of 685,724 in 2011 to 13,459 in 2019.
While Bill de Blasio promised to finally reform the NYPD, there are still complaints against police conduct. First, discriminatory stop-and-frisks have not gone away. Reports have found that many stop-and-frisks go unreported and that some officers still do not understand what is expected of them in terms of performing stop-and-frisks in a non-discriminatory way. Second, unnecessary and often racially-charged violence during arrests is still prevalent. The murder of Eric Garner in 2014 reminded the city that the issue of discriminatory policing can be life-threatening to people of color. Third, out of 11,000 stops in 2018, 7,645 were innocent, and 3,000 complaints about excessive force were filed.
At the heart of the struggle is a police union that refuses to allow public oversight into internal processes. The Police Benevolent Association of NYC, which boasts a membership of 24,000 of the 36,000 NYPD officers, has rejected oversight into policing practices, police misconduct, punishment for misconduct, and almost every other aspect of policing. Not only has the union refused to acknowledge outside criticism of NYPD conduct, it has also largely blocked any means by which the public can see what is happening.
Legislation to create greater transparency is a good first step. However, there remain fundamental problems with the NYPD. The majority of police work is done in underserved minority communities where “broken-windows” policing remains. Even with changes to marijuana possession laws, “proactive policing” harms communities of color by leading to unnecessary arrests and potential for aggressive, if not violent, policing.
The fundamental basis for the NYPD — the idea that major crime will be reduced through harsh punishment of minor crimes — is on shaky ground. In 2014, the NYPD held a “slowdown” because of de Blasio’s attempts to reform the police. Officers were only meant to perform the “most necessary duties” and were forbidden from leaving their cars to arrest people for petty crimes and misdemeanors. A study in 2017 found that this slowdown resulted in lower rates of major crimes as reported by civilians. It is not clear if the lower rates pertained to the crimes or the reports; but it is clear that punishing minor crimes is neither an effective nor efficient way to reduce major crimes. If a massive police bureau is no longer needed to prevent impactful crimes, why should the city give the NYPD $6 billion in 2021?
De Blasio’s budget for the Fiscal Year 2021 has cut funding from a lot of programs, but the NYPD suffers the least. If defunding the police wasn’t previously being considered, the loss of revenue as a result of the Coronavirus should justify at least proportional budget cuts to the NYPD.
The city has relied upon a massive police force for far too long, which has severely harmed people of color. Especially in these times, there is no need to maintain such a large police force. Continuing to fully fund the NYPD not only harms people of color but diverts funds to combat the root issue of poverty and systemic inequalities.