The federal court decision in Floyd v. New York on August 12 that found the NYPD’s stop and frisk program unconstitutional has generated a huge amount of commentary. I did posts here last week on what the decision really says, and the remedies the judge has required. Today I’m going to talk about the likely national impact of the case.
First, an important preliminary question: will the case have a national impact? Isn’t it just about the NYPD’s tactics? Yes, the case is only about what the NYPD has done with stop and frisk, and it was tried in New York, before a federal judge with jurisdiction only in New York. Therefore, it only has an impact on the NYPD, and the opinion only serves as precedent in New York. But while that is the correct legal answer, I believe there is more to it.
To put it simply, the importance of the NYPD reaches far beyond New York. Just think of all of the television programs, the movies, and the books set in New York involving the NYPD: on TV, everything from NYPD Blue to Law and Order, to CSI; NY to Blue Bloods; the 87th Precinct novels, by Ed McBain; on the big screen, The Naked City, The French Connection, Serpico, and Brooklyn’s Finest. The central cultural importance of the NYPD, alone, gives it an outsized place in the American imagination.
More importantly, the last twenty years have seen a burst of initiative and change in American policing, and much of that energy has come from the NYPD. The changes in the NYPD with the advent of William Bratton’s time as Commissioner (for a little less than two years, beginning in 1994) brought innovations like Compstat, which focused precinct-level leadership relentlessly on results and outcomes, not on inputs, and held leaders accountable. Compstat and many other NYPD innovations — and the basic idea that policing could actually make some difference in the fight against crime — have been widely imitated across the country, in small and large police departments alike. Anything the NYPD does, successfully or not, is examined and either followed or rejected, as the fact warrant. As an example, take a look at this story from Detroit: the police in that city have been receiving stop and frisk training to improve their crime fighting abilities from the very people who brought intensive stop and frisk tactics to New York. Thus the court’s decision, declaring that intensive use of stop and frisk, without an adequate legal basis and with a disparate impact on people of color, will be read and contemplated by police departments everywhere in the U.S. It will influence the course of policing, without a doubt, for better or for worse.
Last, the debate over the meaning of the court’s decision is well underway, and it will be a very public struggle over not just the court order, but the direction of American policing overall. Witness an article by John Timoney, a former first deputy Police Commissioner in New York, and former chief of police in Philadelphia and Miami. Mr. Timoney says the court’s order will involve costly and unnecessary changes, and is probably all for nothing: the problem is on the way to fixing itself. (I disagree, and will have more to say about this in my next post.) Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute says that the judge got the decision wrong altogether, by relying on the wrong statistical comparisons. This type of argument will go on for a while, and every law enforcement agency of any consequence in the U.S. will be watching and listening.
So the decision will have – in fact it is already having — a national impact. Expect it to be a starting place on discussions of stop and frisk for a very long time.