Dominating the public policy discussion in New York these past few weeks have been two pieces of New York City Council legislation relating to the New York City Police Department. One creates the position of inspector general within the NYPD to monitor the department’s activities; the other grants individuals who claim to have been victims of racial profiling the right to bring a lawsuit seeking a court judgment prohibiting similar actions by the NYPD (seeking monetary damages is not provided for).
Both measures are said to have been prompted by charges that the NYPD is out of control in its efforts to deal proactively with crime and the terrorist threat to the city. Separate and apart from the merits of the legislation, there are other salient points to be made that are receiving little if any attention.
At the outset, we note three things. Though we tend to agree with those who oppose the legislation on the ground that they will unduly hamper police in maintaining their robust program for crime and terror prevention, we are not unmindful that there are legitimate gripes from law-abiding citizens who get caught up in the wide net cast by the police. This certainly happens when police action is not limited to imminent wrongdoing. It is inherent in the nature of the enterprise.
Nor are we untroubled by charges of excessive use of force by the NYPD. We well remember the shooting of Gidone Busch in Boro Park, Brooklyn, on August 30, 1999 by four police officers. Mr. Busch, an observant Jew wearing a beard and yarmulke, was in an agitated state when cops shot him dead. He had been brandishing a hammer while standing more than six feet from the officers with his back against a wall. No one was ever indicted in the incident and a civil jury ruled against his family – and while the verdict was overturned by a federal judge because of problems with the testimony of a police witness, Mr. Busch’s family chose not to pursue the case any further.
Second, the two pieces of legislation passed the City Council at a time when statistics show that the number of crimes in New York, including homicides, have declined precipitously while those controversial police measures have been in place. Plainly the police are doing something right, though we agree that cannot be the end of the inquiry.
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind captured the moment in a letter to the Council and on his radio show. In his letter urging defeat of the two measures, he noted that as the result of proactive police work, “We’ve had a remarkable, measurable downturn in crime.” He went on to write that the proposed legislation would have “ ‘a chilling effect’ where cops become more concerned with keeping their jobs than doing their duty.”
On his radio program he was even more expressive regarding criticism of special monitoring of Muslims: “As the days go on, more and more people, especially Democrats on the left, are criticizing, asking for more investigations…. I mean, these people are nuts.”
Third, Mayor Bloomberg has created distractions in the public debate with his attempts to justify targeting minority communities for special attention from police. He infelicitously cited the higher percentage of crimes committed by minorities and almost flippantly remarked that whites were being scrutinized far beyond what those statistics would seem to call for. He has also sparked criticism with his vow to throw around his money to defeat those members of the City Council who voted for the legislation. It’s his money to do with as he wishes, and he certainly hasn’t relinquished his right to do so by becoming mayor. Still, the comments serve no good purpose.
What is getting almost no notice is the provenance of both laws. In fact, they are the work product of something called the Progressive Caucus, which upon its formation three years ago was described by The New York Times as consisting of the twelve most liberal members of the City Council. “The caucus,” wrote the Times’s David Chen, “will be the first in recent memory to coalesce around ideology rather than racial or sexual identity, according to Council members. And by voting yes or no as a bloc, the caucus could establish a liberal litmus test for all Council members that could be easily tracked by future Democratic primary voters, who tend to skew left.”