Easy Chair — From the April 2014 issue

Search and Destroy

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Gutter punks throw bottles at the cops near Tompkins Square Park, a police cruiser is flipped upside down in Crown Heights, two men fight under the marquee of a Times Square porn theater, and a fearful old woman clutches a pole in a graffiti-covered subway car. It was a photo album of the bad old days of New York — and during the final month of the city’s recent mayoral race, it showed up in a TV ad called “Can’t Go Back.”

The ad didn’t mention stop-and-frisk, the state law that enables police to question and search pedestrians without probable cause. But that was the underlying subject. The Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, had said he would reform the practice, a pledge that his opponent Joe Lhota called “recklessly dangerous.” If we stopped the illegal searches, Lhota suggested, crime would swallow us whole.

As fearmongering attack ads go, Lhota’s was pretty slick. True, one of the images turned out to be of a crime scene from December 2012, converted to black and white to give it a suitably old-timey look. But the ad was catchy, and quick to spawn a thousand terrible jokes about the criminal hordes of #deblasiosnewyork on Twitter.

1 Even the old woman on the subway car might have been braver than she appears. Richard Sandler, the man who photographed her, told me, “She wasn’t scared as far as I could tell — it was the middle of the day.”

New Yorkers, however, weren’t cowed: de Blasio was elected in a landslide.1 I’d like to think that, given the choice between an unjust policy and riots in the streets, voters chose the riots. It would be a defiant stand in favor of the Fourth Amendment, which safeguards the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches.” But more likely, they recognized Lhota’s doomsaying as speculative, while the benefits de Blasio was promising — affordable housing and universal pre-K — seemed attractively tangible.

Still, ignoring these scare tactics was progress of a sort, and the election cleared the way for an overhaul of stop-and-frisk. In August, a U.S. district court decision had called the searches racially discriminatory. “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life,” Judge Shira A. Scheindlin wrote in Floyd v. City of New York. Michael Bloomberg, then in his final weeks in office, wasn’t convinced. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a lot of people dying,” our mild billionaire mayor explained, and went on to appeal the decision, a move that eventually put Scheindlin’s rulings on hold.

On January 30, a month after his inauguration, de Blasio announced that he was withdrawing the city’s appeal. At the press conference held that day, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton (no friend to civil libertarians) said, “We will not break the law to enforce the law.” Implying, of course, that Bloomberg did. But Lhota’s ad must have gotten under the new mayor’s skin. For every line about liberty and rights, there were three about security. Reforming stop-and-frisk, de Blasio insisted, would “lay the foundation for not only keeping us the safest big city in America, but making us safer still.” Zach Carter, the city’s chief lawyer, added that defending the rights of every New Yorker was “not an imperative at odds with keeping our people safe.”

They’re probably correct. Indeed, we already have some data on the matter. As Floyd made its way through the court system, the NYPD drastically reduced the frequency of its stops: there were 533,000 in 2012 and only 192,000 in 2013. The annual murder rate fell from 417 to 333 in the same period. Apparently we could have it both ways, preserving our liberties and cutting back on crime. But what if the numbers had swung in the other direction? Would we trade 341,000 nonharassed citizens for eighty-four more dead ones? We might never know. For the time being, the New Yorkers targeted by stop-and-frisk should feel lucky that their Fourth Amendment rights have proved so compatible with the city’s endless campaign to be safer still.

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