It’s been a tough summer to be a minority entangled in the dispiriting web of the criminal justice system. Florida’s NRA advocated, vigilante-promoting Stand Your Ground law degenerated into inevitable ugliness with the 2012 shooting death of 17 year-old, unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. In the trial that followed, a jury of women upheld shooter George Zimmerman’s contention that he was not a racist, overreaching cop wannabe, just a regular neighborhood watchman protecting his property. Unfortunately, despite the uproar, pain and public demonstrations which followed the verdict, the jury’s decision was well-founded according to strict application of the horrendous law. Zimmerman need only have felt the appearance of imminent danger to warrant a discharge of his weapon.
The badly needed public discourse that accompanied the case forced American citizens of all stripes to ask themselves and their neighbors the tough questions: Just how far has race equality actually advanced in the post-Civil Rights era? Is our justice system really as blind as our stated ideals desire? Where is the middle ground located between protection of public safety and respect for individual freedom and liberty?
In the local and national conversations which ensued, New York City’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk policy figured prominently. The public data warehouse, Wikipedia, defines the program as “a practice of the New York City Police Department by which a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a penal law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”
The rightfully suspicious regarded this expansion of street level police authority as rife with racial profiling possibilities. New York City’s outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg has found his seat of defense perpetually hot as he weathered public and private demonstrations against the law. Arguing that the policy has reduced crime and saved lives, the Mayor has repeatedly refused calls to abolish or at least amend the statute. The Supreme Court of the United States previously ruled that such practices were constitutional under the vaguely worded, “certain conditions.”
Opponents of the law have long argued that Stop-and-Frisk searches have been unevenly directed at young minority men, particularly African Americans. And this week, that constituency found a powerful ally in the form of federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin. In a decision rendered Monday morning, the judge had strong words of rebuke for Bloomberg and the NYPD. According to a story published in the New York Times, the judge “found that the city ‘adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data.’ She rejected the city’s arguments that more stops happened in minority neighborhoods solely because those happened to have high-crime rates.” Writer Joseph Goldstein further reports, “To fix the constitutional violations, the judge designated an outside lawyer, Peter L. Zimroth, to monitor the Police Department’s compliance with the Constitution.”
Mr. Zimroth has yeoman’s work ahead in the attempt to fix a law that has displayed “a widespread disregard for the [protections of the] Fourth Amendment,” but the rewards will be well worth the effort. Let this week’s ruling serve as a warning to other municipal locations across the nation who may have been inspired by the Big Apple’s example. Public safety concerns do not equate to free rein to harass “the other.”