Crime rates are low enough that New York can lay claim to being America's safest big city. The police commissioner is so popular that some have urged him to run for mayor.

And yet city lawmakers are discussing proposals to rein in the NYPD, including the appointment of an independent inspector general to monitor it.

It's too soon to say what laws, if any, will result from City Council hearings Wednesday and in the coming weeks on the proposals, largely aimed at officers' hundreds of thousands of "stop-and-frisk" stops on streets each year.

But after years of complaints that the stops are racially discriminatory, the hearings signal that the public debate has grown loud enough that lawmakers and candidates in next year's mayoral election feel they have to be heard on one side of the debate or the other.

City Councilman Peter F. Vallone (D-Astoria), chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, is heading today's session. Not that he's behind any of the proposals -- the former prosecutor's views on them range from ambivalent to vehemently opposed.

The measures represent city lawmakers' most robust move in several years toward confronting what critics call racial profiling and problematic tactics at the nation's largest police department.

Stop-and-frisks became an integral part of the city's law enforcement in the mid-1990s, but the numbers have risen since Bloomberg took office in 2002. Officers made a record 684,330 of the stops last year, seven times the number in 2002. They stopped about 337,000 in the first six months of this year.

Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly credit the practice with deterring violence and helping drive down New York's crime rate to the lowest among the country's 25 most populous cities, as measured by the FBI.

Stop-and-frisk critics point to other statistics that they say add up to racial profiling that does little for public safety: Blacks or Hispanics accounted for some 87 percent of those stopped last year, and only about 12 percent of the stops resulted in arrests or tickets.

The stop-and-frisk debate has gotten a political charge amid the contest to succeed the term-limited Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has defended the practice. All the top likely mayoral contenders have made a point of saying they're concerned about stop-and-frisks, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has near-total control over which efforts get to a council vote.

Besides the inspector general proposal, others up for discussion Wednesday would require officers to explain why they are stopping people, tell them when they have a right to refuse a search and hand out business cards identifying themselves. Another would give people more latitude to sue over stops they considered biased.

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