Judge Shira Scheindlin may have struck an enormous blow in favor of Constitutional rights today. Or, if you agree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she may have put poor and minority New Yorkers in grave danger. The reality, as far as the NYPD’s practices go, is somewhere in between. But Scheindlin’s decision, in a federal case challenging the city’s use of stop-and-frisk tactics, does one thing unequivocally, and it’s something maybe even the mayor could thank her for: It shifts the axis of the mayoral campaign away from sexts and toward life-and-death questions about how the city should be run.
Before we deal with the political impact, though, a little bit about stop-and-frisk. The myths and the symbolism about the tactic have long since outrun the day-to-day practicalities. Certainly, in a department of 30,000 officers, there are biased cops; certainly many minority neighborhoods have higher crime rates; certainly many innocent people have been unjustly harassed. But — to wildly summarize what I described at much greater length last year — the abuse of stop-and-frisk has been largely bureaucratic, not racist. The departmental pressure to generate “activity” in reaction to crime spikes drove much of the explosive growth in stops. So too did the desire to, and the difficulty of, reducing crime below already record lows. Bloomberg is right that stop-and-frisk has been effective in saving lives; the much harder question is whether it can be used like a scalpel and not a club.
Which brings us back to the politics. The reflexive analysis has been that today’s decision is best for John Liu, who has claimed he’d ban racial-profiling as mayor, and for Bill de Blasio, who has been selling himself as a clean break from the Bloomberg era, and worst for Christine Quinn, who is most closely identified with the current mayor. Bill Thompson would seem to benefit from being the black candidate, and increasingly a voice of grievance on stop-and-frisk, but not a radical. I doubt the fallout is going to be simple, and the candidates have been smart enough to work both sides of the crime issue throughout the campaign, even when their rhetoric gets heated: De Blasio, for instance, says he’d consider installing one of Ray Kelly’s deputies as the next police commissioner, and Thompson has opposed the anti-racial-profiling bill that’s in front of the city council. Today the Dems jumped to release statements about Scheindlin’s ruling. But they all know that when it comes to crime, voters are going to judge them as much on a gut-level belief about who they can trust to lead the police department as much as they are on any specific policy promises.