In the more than 40 years I’ve been a reporter in this city, I have covered a remarkable number of reckless public officials, but Howard Safir and the mayor have earned a lifetime achievement award in that category.
Consider how they have permitted the Street Crime Unit— four of whose members took 41 bullets to finish off Amadou Diallo— to become a rogue police operation whose members make Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry look like Mahatma Gandhi.
Some of these bravos wear T-shirts proclaiming: “We Own the Night!” Another of the marauding unit’s T-shirts quotes from Ernest Hemingway:
“There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it never care for anything else.”
This information came from WNYC-AM reporter Amy Eddings. That station— fortunately no longer owned by the city— has been a source of pertinent information during this revival of mass civil disobedience on a scale not seen here since the indomitable 1960s demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for blacks’ civil rights.
On Brian Lehrer’s On the Line (WNYC-AM, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to noon), Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was talking about the way the cops, particularly the nearly all-white Street Crime Unit, have been jumping mostly black and Latino New Yorkers in search of guns— or whatever else turns up.
During the past two years, these bullyboys officially reported 40,000 of these confrontations. But somehow only 9500 of those searched have been arrested.
These statistics reveal that Giuliani and Safir don’t give a damn about this epidemic of lawless police behavior.
To suddenly stop and frisk a civilian, a cop must have at least a “reasonable suspicion” that something criminal has taken place, is taking place, or is about to. Banging you against a fence on just a hunch is unconstitutional. Nor is it enough for a cop to just see a bulge in your clothing, and, with no other reason for suspicion, suddenly decide to stop and frisk you.
The cop has to be able to articulate the evidence— or point to a specific act on your part— that would justify “reasonable suspicion.”
Giuliani and Safir seem to be unaware of basic Fourth Amendment law— although their spokespeople say that members of the Street Crime Unit get special training in applicable court decisions. Do these briefings come from the casebook that Bill Clinton used when he taught constitutional law at the University
It has to be emphasized that a stop-and-frisk is clearly subject to Fourth Amendment protections. Said the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio (1968):
“It is quite plain that the Fourth Amendment governs ‘seizures’ of the person which do not result in a trip to the station house and prosecution for a crime— ‘arrests’ in traditional terminology. It must be recognized that whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away, he has ‘seized’ that person.” (Emphasis added.)
The High Court continued: “It is nothing less than sheer torture of the English language to suggest that a careful exploration of the outer surface of a person’s clothing all over his or her body in an attempt to find weapons is not a ‘search.’ ”
So here we have— according to official police statistics— over 30,000 New Yorkers having been restrained by the police and searched for doing nothing wrong. In addition, nearly half the felony gun cases actually brought to court in Manhattan by the Street Crime Unit have been thrown out as being unconstitutional.
But the police commissioner— and the mayor, who often makes clear that he is the ultimate commander of the NYPD— are responsible for even worse constitutional violations.
During that WNYC interview, Attorney General Spitzer, who has begun an investigation of Giuliani’s police, startled Brian Lehrer by breaking this news:
“I’ve spoken to many officers who say they do not fill out the required forms for every stop-and-frisk. They may fill out one in five or one in 10. We may have several hundred thousands of these police actions without arrests.” (Emphasis added.)
The mayor, who has scheduled speaking engagements to Republican audiences around the country, is aware that this furor may cost him a spot on the Republican ticket in 2004. He desperately keeps insisting that the NYPD is “the best in the country in every respect, for all its faults and imperfections. And the present complaints have nothing to do with the police commissioner.”
But he and Safir have now been exposed as encouraging a runaway police force to be in wholesale contempt of the Constitution. These police subject not only black and Latino citizens but whites as well to kinds of abasement that have not been seen in a big city since the reign of southern mayors and police commissioners before the Civil Rights revolution.
The American Jewish Committee and the New York Board of Rabbis have joined the black and Latino communities in sharply criticizing the mayor and his police commissioner.
Rabbi Robert Levine speaks of New York under Giuliani as “a racially polarized city in which there are two standards of justice.”
The rabbi says he is sending a shofar blast to further awaken the city. The shofar (a ram’s horn) is blown at the start of the Jewish New Year to proclaim a truly new beginning. In biblical times, it was a call to battle.
The wall of Jericho collapsed to that sound and so will Giuliani as a credible candidate for any future office.
The sudden Giuliani-Safir decision to put the Street Crime Unit in uniform rather than in plainclothes is a fraud. There has been no change in the unconstitutional criteria for a stop-and-frisk.
And what message is Safir sending to the rest of the police force by now giving all members of the Street Crime Unit a raise? As a cop at Police Headquarters told the Times: “You mean all we had to do to get a raise was shoot an unarmed man 41 times?”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 30, 1999