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Police Harassment or Important City Safety Tactics?

stop-and-frisk-blog-postThis is a guest post from Phil Balbo.

Controversial “stop-and-frisk” practices, widely criticized as unfairly, even illegally, targeting minorities, are being scrutinized more closely thanks to a new smartphone app that allows those witnessing what they believe to police harassment to record and send what they’ve seen to one of several civil liberties unions. Not surprisingly, law enforcement is critical of this new technology, arguing that it may actually increase crime, as some individuals will more easily discern and avoid the focus of police activity. Others argue that it may be a violation of privacy rights in recording, without permission, those stopped by law enforcement.

In my opinion, some of these issues may be dealt with quiet easily. If for example, identities of those recorded can obscured, perhaps via face blur technology, anonymity can be preserved. But such an issue may really prove irrelevant in the end, as expectations of privacy in the public sphere are eroding somewhat to begin with: think city cams, satellite captures, Google imaging, and more. That being said, none of these necessarily capture individuals in the midst of a police stop. But if these “stop and frisk” images and recordings are being used for “good,” and without names or other identifying information attached, and, further, in a very limited manner—can’t an argument be made that they’re in the public interest? Don’t cameras mounted on police cruiser dashboards also capture images of those detained by law enforcement?

So just what are these stop and frisk practices? In New York City, they amount to the ability of law enforcement to stop and search anyone presumed to be engaged in suspicious activity, and, last year alone, police made nearly 700,000 such stops, typically involving persons from ethnic minority background. The majority of these stops found no contraband or ultimately discerned any illegal activity.

Rights groups have come out in force against the practices, which they say amount to ethnic and racial profiling, as well as police harassment. Especially troubling is that there seems to be no established definition for perceived “suspicious behavior”—it seems that anything might trigger a police stop, and this is what is particularly disturbing to civil rights activists: These often unfounded stops, based on nothing more than an observance of, say, shifty glances or patterns of movement, recall the harassment of blacks in the South during the Jim Crow era, or the targeting of immigrants in, for example, Arizona.

Many civil rights and criminal defense attorneys agree that these programs, designed to stop crime before it starts, are overbearing and a violation of constitutional principles. In an attempt to counter such suggestions, Mayor Bloomberg himself recently addressed the congregation of a predominantly black church in a high-crime Brooklyn neighborhood. Bloomberg pointed to a reduction in minority on minority crime, and delivered statistics backing up his arguments that lives in communities such as the one he addressed have been saved as a result of the aggressive police program. Community leaders appreciate the reduction in crime, but continue to take issue with what they view to be an overly harsh implementation of the program.

As arguments on both sides continue to unfold, it remains to be seen what the fate of the program will be, and how it might be restructured in order to address concerns of profiling and harassment. Meanwhile, leadership in other communities around the nation riddled with crime anticipate the outcome as one that may be instructive for implementation of the same in their towns.

Written by Phil Balbo. For more on possible racial profiling in traffic stops, please visit the ACLU home page.

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