The decision by a three judge federal appeals court stopping changes to the New York City Police Department’s stop, question, and frisk policy was bad enough. In doing so, they also questioned the integrity of the judge who ruled the policy as practiced by the NYPD was unconstitutional. Judge Shira Scheindlin gave hope to people of color in the city who rightly felt their rights were violated by being stopped when they had done nothing wrong. That hope is now seriously at risk.
The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit took the unusual step of removing Judge Scheindlin from the case altogether. Their rationale? The court said she’d compromised the “appearance of impartiality” surrounding the lawsuit aimed at curbing the excesses of stop and frisk. Those excesses are many, and while the appeals court said their action wasn’t a comment on the merits of the lawsuit, it’s hard to look at it as something different.
The cold hard facts are these. Stop and frisk rose geometrically under the tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It reached its apex at more than three quarters of a million people stopped in a single year. The overwhelming majority of those stopped were people of color. The overwhelming majority of those were innocent of any wrongdoing.
The city’s argument has been that the tactic is crucial to lowering the crime rate. Yet so far this year, the number of stop and frisks has fallen, and so has the crime rate. In arguments earlier this week before the appeals court, the city asserted that police were now afraid to use stop and frisk for fear of violating the constitution.
This is laughable.
The NYPD has a justifiable reputation as one of the best in the country. The idea that people’s rights have to be violated in order for them to do their job is absurd. The appeals court seems to be saying that a judge whose opinion was formed during the course of the case and said so isn’t worth hearing it.
Should people take the appeals court at its word when it says it hasn’t made up its mind on the substance of the appeal of Judge Scheindlin’s ruling? In the meantime, in addition to assigning the appeal to another judge, the substance of her order on stop and frisk has been stayed.
Does that make innocent New Yorkers of color feel better? It shouldn’t.