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Newly-elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced yesterday that the city has settled its 14-year legal battle over a controversial police stop-and-frisk policy.
The practice became popular under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who credited the stops with lower crime and murder rates in the city.
In August, a judge in Manhattan’s Federal District Court found that department’s stop and frisk tactics were unconstitutional. The judge in the case referred to it as “a policy of indirect racial profiling.”
Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center, about whether this move is enough to stop the unfair policing and racial tensions between minority communities and police.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. It's becoming increasingly obvious there's a new sheriff and mayor in town in New York. When new Mayor Bill de Blasio announced yesterday that the city has settled its legal battle over police stop and frisk policy, standing with him was the city's new Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who said police were pushed hard to make the stops. A spokesman for the Police Benevolent Association went further, saying there were quotas.
Quotas are illegal. Raymond Kelly, police commissioner under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has long said they were actually productivity goals, and the Bloomberg administration appealed the court ruling in August that found stop and frisk unconstitutional. But yesterday the new mayor made it clear the city would drop that appeal. Robert Gangi is director of the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York and joins us from the NPR studios in New York. Your thoughts on the change?
ROBERT GANGI: We knew that it was coming. De Blasio had pledged during the campaign that he would withdraw the Bloomberg appeal. And still it's a very positive step, a very constructive step.
YOUNG: Well, the judge found the stops a policy of indirect racial profiling. You mentioned that de Blasio had pledged to end them in his campaign. He is married to an African-American woman, and here is their son in a campaign ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
DANTE DE BLASIO: He's got the boldest plan to build affordable housing, and he's the only one who will end a stop and frisk era that unfairly targets people of color...
YOUNG: Tell us a little bit more about that because his son was a very prominent part of the campaign trail, with his big, beautiful afro.
GANGI: Yeah, de Blasio's victory was a surprise to a lot of people, including me. I mean, he was my fourth or fifth place in the polls for many, many months last year. And there was a sudden uptick in the polls, and a lot of people credited that ad to being a significant boost to his campaign not only because his son was clearly such a charming figure to put forward but because of his declaration that his father was going to end the abusive practice of stop and frisk.
YOUNG: Well, the stop and frisk policy isn't new, but its detractors said that it was under Commissioner Ray Kelly that it really was forcefully used and supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Neither has commented on yesterday's announcements. But in August when the judge ruled that the policy was unconstitutional, Mayor Bloomberg said that that ruling was dangerous, it undermined public safety.
He had credited it for a sharp reduction in murders. Now let's look at the numbers. The murder rate, the lowest in recent memory in 2013, 333 murders, that's as opposed to 2,245 in 1991 and dropping continually over the last seven years. Devil's advocate, if murders are being stopped because of stop and frisk, which Bloomberg and Kelly claim, isn't that a good thing?
GANGI: Well, I think we could all agree that a drop in murders is a good thing. Obviously there's a major debate on what produced that positive outcome, and the numbers actually undercut the Bloomberg and Kelly argument because the murder rate dropped - actually started to drop under Mayor Dinkins back in the early '90s, continued to drop under Giuliani, was already at, at that time, an historically low rate when Bloomberg took office in 2002.
And last year was the lowest reported number of murders in the history of New York City, and the numbers of stop and frisk had dropped dramatically last year. In 2011, for example, there were over 685,000 stops. Last year, when there were fewer murders, there was less than 200,000 stops, which undercuts the Bloomberg-Kelly argument that stop and frisk was contributing to the drop in the murder rate.
YOUNG: Well, in addition to this agreement the city has made to accept the judge's ruling that stop and frisk is unconstitutional, the judge also appointed a monitor to oversee reform. De Blasio says he's going to install an independent NYPD inspector general, correct training materials, revise policies regarding racial profiling. Is this enough?
GANGI: No, the embrace of the judge's ruling by the de Blasio administration is significant. There's a number of reasons, though, I am saying that it's insufficient. One thing to correct you, and you're not the only person who calls the inspector general's office an independent office, it's not independent. The inspector general that de Blasio is referring to is a unit of the city's Department of Investigation, directly accountable to the commissioner of the Department of Investigation, who is directly accountable to the mayor.
To have a truly independent monitor, you would have to establish someone who had authority to review police practices and to call into question police practices who is outside the executive branch of government.
YOUNG: A civilian.
GANGI: And that's in effect what the court-appointed monitor is. The concern we have about the court-appointed monitor is that he has already been appointed, a man named Peter Zimroth, who is a very well-regarded member of the legal community in New York City, the problem is that Zimroth is only going to be able to monitor the issues and abuses covered by the court ruling, which focuses almost entirely on stop and frisk.
The police are reporting, as of the last three months of last year, when Bloomberg was still mayor, and Ray Kelly was still commissioner, that the number of stops had dropped in the last quarter, that's October, November, December, to 12,300. Now that's an annualized rate of under 50,000.
YOUNG: Is this in part because the police don't seem to want to do this? In fact, you know, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional that they do it. Address that comment from Al O'Leary, a spokesman for the Police Benevolent Association. He's adamant that there were quotas, that they were pushed to do this.
GANGI: There's no question there were quotas, and there's this wonderful from "The Godfather" where the Pacino character tells somebody, you know, don't insult my intelligence. When Kelly and Bloomberg say there are no quotas, they are insulting our intelligence. Any police officer you speak to, and including retired police officers who are not afraid to talk to you, will tell you there are quotas.
For example in our research, to gather information about what was really going on with NYPD practices, we would speak to victims of police harassment who told us - this is more than one person who told us this - the cop would apologize.
There was one young man of color who told us he got a ticket for walking between two subway cars while the train was stopped. And the officer apologized to him, saying I'm sorry, man, it's the 26th of the month, and I have to hit my number.
YOUNG: Well as we said, former Commissioner Kelly says it wasn't a quota, it was a productivity goal. But just address something else that we're hearing today, that the new Commissioner Bratton is saying that he'll no longer send rookies into some of these neighborhoods. I mean, we know for instance the stop and frisk tactics were applied more in some areas than in others.
YOUNG: And Bratton is now saying he will not send rookies into those areas.
GANGI: Another constructive set that the de Blasio-Bratton administration is taking. Bratton is clearly taking steps to reorient the strategy of policing that was practiced under Ray Kelly, away from this harsh, aggressive, intrusive kind of policing that was based mainly on punitive interactions between the community and the cops.
And Bratton is very much trying to establish what might be considered a more community-oriented, collaborative style of policing that isn't based just on punitive interactions. Let me tell you a quote from a current police officer. And he spoke out very loudly against the quota system, and one thing he told was if I break up a fight between two boys and send them home, I get no credit.
If I happen to help deliver a baby in an emergency, I get no credit. But I'll get high marks if I give out a seatbelt ticket or make a stop.
YOUNG: Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York. Thanks so much.
GANGI: Oh thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: Much more to come, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.