By smashing City Hall's argument that NYPD stop-and-frisk practices are constitutional, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin Monday chipped the finish on the Bloomberg legacy.
The ruling precedes by less than three months the election to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Whether one mayoral candidate gains from issues raised in the case more than another remains to be seen, but the damage to Bloomberg's prestige is clear.
For one thing, regardless how appeals turn out, Scheindlin's high-profile, 195-page decision underscores that, based on the police's own "imperfect" reports, 98.5 percent of frisks turned up no weapon, and 88 percent produced no arrests or summonses. For all that implies, she says she's not even deciding the crime-fighting virtues of the program -- only its constitutionality.
"The city acted with deliberate indifference toward the NYPD's practice of making unconstitutional stops and conducting unconstitutional frisks," Scheindlin concluded. "Nothing was done" in response to a 1999 report by the state attorney general (Eliot Spitzer at the time) that put the city (led by Rudy Giuliani at the time) on notice that searches were carried out in a "racially skewed manner," Scheindlin wrote.
With Bloomberg-era retrospectives about to flood the airwaves in the next five months, this issue could be grouped with others that raised civil-liberties concerns.
There was the roundup and confinement of bystanders and protesters alike during the 2004 Republican National Convention.
There was City Hall's reluctance to permit an anti-war rally in Central Park (the kind held many times before) citing concern the grass would be damaged.
There were disputed arrests of nonviolent "Critical Mass" bicyclists and the prosecution of military veterans for violating a park curfew while reading names of war dead.
Further, Bloomberg's reaction Monday that Scheindlin had "ignored the real-world realities of crime" may be undercut by a downward trend trumpeted late last month by a publication the mayor lists as one of his favorites, the London-based Economist. "From Japan to Estonia," said its cover story, "property and people are safer than at almost any time since the 1970s."
Even if you choose to believe that New York City "led" an international crime drop, would yesteryear's crack wars start up again if police-stop policies are changed?
Outside New York City's political echo chamber, experts have been analyzing causes of the crime drop for more than five years -- weighing factors as varied as ubiquitous cameras, more aggressive policing, an older population, longer prison sentences for certain crimes, high-tech burglar alarms and DNA databases. There has never been unanimity on crime-fighting philosophies.
Tactically, it might not have been the best idea for Bloomberg officials to produce and then leak a memo in May purporting to show Scheindlin to be biased against law enforcement. But who knows? Maybe the memo was just pre-emptive spin anticipating a loss in the case.