“No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life,” wrote Judge Shira Scheindlin in her decision excoriating the NYPD’s “Stop-and-Frisk” policy, a racially divisive law enforcement tactic that has for more than a decade allowed police to stop and search anyone they deemed suspicious. Nearly 90% of those stopped were let go immediately with no summons, making it difficult to justify the criteria used by officers in assigning suspicion. And nearly 90% of those stopped were black or Hispanic, making it impossible to reasonably argue that race was not a factor in the stops. Still it continued, with Mayor Bloomberg and other authorities justifying a racially targeted violation of the individual’s right to privacy by saying it helped stop crime, citing a safer city. New York crime statistics (excepting white collar crime, that is) did show a downward trend during the Bloomberg years, when the policy was in place–though given the complexity and variety of factors influencing urban crime rates it was impossible to determine what degree of cause and effect, if any, existed where stop-and-frisk was concerned.
The “makes us safer” argument that propped up “stop and frisk” for so long resembles the argument made by advocates of the NSA surveillance program. Both law enforcement tactics assume that someone with nothing to hide shouldn’t mind being monitored and searched, especially if the inconvenience and surrender of privacy serves the greater good. And while the NSA program lacks the racial element–despite its targeting of Muslims the NSA outrage is, conversely, about how broadly the digital net is being cast–both are an affront to privacy, seen in any clear light. Judge Scheindlin’s decision to see “stop-and-frisk” for what it is, a woefully inefficient and racist practice conducted with an authoritarian stench that mocked the notion of a free citizenry, was long overdue. If the recent repeal of DOMA was cause for celebration among advocates of equal rights, the blocking of “stop-and-frisk” should be cause for similar rejoicing. The tactic was impossible to explain to a fifth-grader learning about America in a classroom–and its consignment to the dustbin of history (where it can languish with Jim Crow) is a proud moment for the country, not just New York. News of it made headlines from the New York Times to Al Jazeera, where the decision reaches an audience profitably reminded of America’s respect for individual rights.