Editorial: Trial casts light on worst of stop and frisk

Testimony in a Manhattan federal courtroom has been giving New Yorkers a rare view of how NYPD stop-and-frisk tactics are playing out -- in precinct houses and on the streets of some of the city's toughest neighborhoods.

The picture is troubling. Last week the court heard the secretly taped recording of a deputy inspector in the Bronx telling an officer he had to make more stops of people creating "the most problems . . ." Who are they? The context of the deputy inspector's answer is disputed, but this remark by him, captured on tape, has attracted widespread attention: ". . . male blacks, 14 to 20, 21." There was separate testimony that officers had stop-and-frisk quotas to meet.

There are many things you can say about this. You can say these vignettes are not representative of all NYPD street stops. You can say stop and frisk lowers crime rates. You can say the NYPD makes stops disproportionately in minority areas because that's where crime is the highest. You'd probably be right. But stop-and-frisk operations must meet constitutional standards. Police need a solid reason before they can make a stop. And the evidence presented in court suggests the NYPD could be falling short.

The stops have morphed into a heated issue in the mayoral race as well. Last year, says the New York Civil Liberties Union, using NYPD data, police stopped New Yorkers about 533,000 times, and 89 percent were innocent of any wrongdoing. Such numbers stoke public anger, and the NYPD could pay a heavy price. The City Council is threatening to give the department an inspector general with oversight powers. The federal court could order a monitor to oversee the department. Those are two very bad ideas.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have strongly defended stop and frisk. They call it indispensable in bringing crime rates down. But the city did ratchet up police training in 2012 after a judge questioned the program. Stops fell by 22 percent last year and murders still hit record lows. Is there more room to tighten standards? It falls to Bloomberg and Kelly to find some.

Unconstitutional stops are not acceptable.

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