The controversy around the New York Police Department’s practice of stopping and questioning hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Hispanic men each year may decide who becomes the next mayor of the nation's largest city.
Voters in the city's Democratic and Republican mayoral primaries on Tuesday were choosing candidates to replace three-term independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire first elected as a Republican who vigorously supports the police’s “stop and frisk” tactics. The general election is Nov. 5.
On the Democratic side, recent polls showed liberal candidate Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, breezing past long-time favorite City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in part by hammering on the unfairness of stop and frisk. De Blasio also siphoned off black voters from Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller and the only black mayoral candidate, who has been less vocal than de Blasio in saying NYPD policies lead to racial profiling.
Michael Johnson, a 41-year-old black Harlem resident who was on his way to the polls on Tuesday morning, told Yahoo News that he decided to back de Blasio over Thompson because of his position on stop and frisk.
“Honestly, I would have liked to see a little more from Bill Thompson [on the issue] because he lives in Harlem,” Johnson said. “I think Bill de Blasio came at it earlier and with more passion.”
Johnson is one of the thousands of people who say they were stopped and sometimes searched by the NYPD in Harlem, a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood. Police stopped more than 4 million people over the past eight years under the policy, which was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge last month. More than 80 percent of those stopped and questioned were black or Hispanic, which the federal judge said amounted to “indirect racial profiling.” (The city is appealing the decision, arguing that stop and frisk is applied fairly and is a key tool in fighting crime.)
“I don’t have a criminal record, so I shouldn’t be treated like a criminal on a whim,” Johnson said. The telecom worker said he has been stopped “countless” times over the decades in the neighborhood, including an incident a few months ago when he was pulled from a taxi by police officers and questioned. He filed a complaint against one of the officers involved in that incident.
Johnson called the amount of times he’s been stopped by police “embarrassing.”
De Blasio has staked out a position to the left of every Democratic mayoral candidate on the issue. He is the only candidate who supported two City Council bills that appointed a special inspector general to oversee the NYPD and made it easier for New Yorkers to sue the department if they believe they’ve been racially profiled. Quinn, the city council speaker, voted against the racial profiling bill.
De Blasio also ran television ads featuring his Afro-wearing 15-year-old son, Dante, saying that his father would “end an era of stop-and-frisk that unfairly targets people of color.” De Blasio, whose wife is black, said in another ad that even though many New Yorkers do not know what it is like to be targeted by police, he and his family understand the experience firsthand.
De Blasio’s persistence on the issue may explain his 14-point lead over Thompson among black voters in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC4-Marist poll. Thompson nabbed nearly 80 percent of the black vote when he ran against Bloomberg four years ago. A Quinnipiac University poll found that New York City is deeply racially divided over stop and frisk, with 57 percent of white voters approving of the practice compared with just 25 percent of black voters. (Overall, just 45 percent of New Yorkers approve, compared with 50 percent who would nix stop and frisk.)
De Blasio has also emphasized the issue of wealth inequality, arguing that wealthy people should have to pay more taxes and that the city must build affordable housing.
Crime has long been an animating issue in New York City politics, but traditionally as an arena for candidates to compete to see who can seem the very toughest and pro-enforcement. This year’s debate over stop and frisk added a new twist, as the Democratic candidates walked a delicate line between condemning racial profiling and supporting the NYPD’s crime fighting efforts.
Chris Dunne, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York who has worked on cases against stop and frisk, said he was surprised stop and frisk had become such a flash point in the race. “Typically elected officials don’t get heavily involved in law enforcement issues,” Dunne said. “That this is such a central issue in the mayoral campaign shows just how controversial and problematic the New York City stop and frisk program is.”
Bloomberg has argued that stop and frisk is partly responsible for the significant drop in slayings over his tenure and has warned that the city could return to its high crime years if it’s rolled back. But criminal justice experts warn there’s no way to substantiate that claim.
“Statistically, there's no way to isolate the effect of stop and frisk,” said Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, who added that people making claims one way or the other are “deluding themselves.”