Undercover agents, targeted wiretaps, and dogged investigatory work by New York Police Department officers over a period of ten months led this week to what is being dubbed the largest gun smuggling bust in New York City history. It netted 254 illegal guns, 19 indictments, and sent a bold signal to those seeking to traffic guns in from other states with lax gun laws. But announcing the achievement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) focused on another police tactic:
Today we are announcing the largest gun bust in the city’s history, the result of an undercover investigation into two out-of-state gun trafficking operations. There were 19 arrests made as part of this investigation, which broke up a major gunrunning operation that trafficked guns here from North Carolina and South Carolina. Wiretapped conversations from this investigation show that one of the gun trafficker’s biggest concerns was stop, question, frisk. And guns continue to flow onto our streets from other states. We have to take every constitutionally protected step at our disposal to keep them out, and to keep them from being used to kill innocent people, who tragically all too often are members of black and Hispanic communities.
Bloomberg was referring to a recorded conversation in which one of the 19 defendants, Earl Campbell, said he preferred to do his gun deals on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, because at his house, near Brownsville, Brooklyn, “We got like, whatchamacallit, stop and frisk.”
Since a federal judge held the city police department engages in unconstitutional racial profiling in its aggressive stop-and-frisk program, Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly have remained adamant in defending the policy as it stands, and committed to appealing the ruling. Bloomberg went so far Friday as to insult the judge who decided the case, saying Judge Shira Scheindlin knows “absolutely zero” about policing, even though Scheindlin made clear at the start of her decision that she made no assessments about good policing, but only about the Constitution. “Your safety and the safety of your kids is now in the hands of some woman who does not have the expertise to do it,” Bloomberg nonetheless warned.
Reports of the tactics used by investigators to complete the recent gun sting do not indicate that stop-and-frisk contributed to its success. But Bloomberg cites Campbell’s fear of the tactic as proof that it’s working. Bloomberg didn’t need to wiretap Campbell to know that young minority men all over the city are fearful of stop-and-frisks, whether or not they are committing any crimes. It is one of the reasons why the NYPD’s racially targeted stops have become so insidious, and why Judge Scheindlin wrote in her opinion invalidating the practice, “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life.”
Bloomberg notes later in his remarks that the practice has snagged 8,000 guns in the past decade, but as Gothamist points out, he leaves out the tactic’s overall success rate of 0.1 percent. Judge Scheindlin found that NYPD officers perform a disproportionate number of stops in high-minority neighborhoods, regardless of the crime rate in those neighborhoods. What Campbell’s decision to commit his crime in Manhattan means is that the NYPD’s current stop-and-frisk tactics would be less likely to yield success. A mapping of gun seizures by WNYC found that the NYPD finds most guns outside of so-called stop-and-frisk “hot spots.” And this probably explains why recent statistics show that stops of African Americans yield a weapon half as often as stops of whites.
There is no question that stop-and-frisks sometimes yield weapons and prevent violent criminal activity. That’s why the tactic, performed when appropriate and in compliance with the Constitution, has long been a staple for police officers. In fact, the concept of a stop-and-frisk, or “Terry stop,” comes out of the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio, which delineated when and how police officers can stop a person suspected of criminal activity, and subsequently frisk them if the officer believes they are armed and dangerous. It is the racially motivated, often suspicionless stops and frisks that were invalidated by Judge Scheindlin, and that Bloomberg continues to defend.
In this case, as in many others, stop-and-frisk’s reputation yielded nothing but more fear, while skilled, targeted police work yielded 254 dangerous weapons.