For blacks and Hispanics, they are the weapons of mass destruction because of the damage they’ve wrought in the war on crime.
But for the U.S. Justice Department scrambling to deal with a crack epidemic that began sweeping the nation 40 years ago, and for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg determined to make the streets safe, the weapons were not only justified but were necessary.
Today, however, the federal mandatory minimum sentence laws for low-level drug offenses have been shelved on orders of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
And a federal judge in New York has ruled the city’s stop-and-frisk program is unconstitutional because it violates the rights of individuals who are targeted by police. Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, in a 195-page decision, said the program not only steps on two amendments — the Fourth (unreasonable search and seizure) and the 14th (equal protection under the law) — but amounts to a “policy of indirect racial profiling.”
Although Scheindlin did not halt the stop-and-frisk policy, she did order a pilot program in which some police officers would wear cameras on their bodies to record street encounters, according to The New York Times.
She also appointed a former corporate counsel and prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office to monitor the police department’s compliance with the U.S. Constitution, the Times reported.
Mayor Bloomberg, who vehemently disagreed with the judge’s ruling and accused her of bias against the police, promised a court battle. His administration wasted little time in filing an appeal.
More than 4 million stops were made between 2004 and the middle of 2012, most of them involving blacks or Hispanics. However, more than 90 percent of those stopped were released without officers finding a basis for summons or arrest.
But the mayor contends that since most crime occurs within the minority population of New York, it is to be expected that most of the stops would occur within those populations.
It is a fact that in most urban centers, crime occurs within the black and Hispanic communities, which is why law enforcement focuses on them.
But as Judge Scheindlin noted, the New York City Police Department should come up with a constitutional way of achieving its goal of reducing crime among minorities.
We have long argued that giving law enforcement permission to target one group of Americans because of pre-conceived notions about them is not only unlawful, but is a travesty of justice.
We have gone so far as to caution against the use of surveillance cameras on the streets because of invasion- of-privacy concerns.
Rather than fight the judge’s ruling, Mayor Bloomberg and all other mayors confronting the very real problem of crime in the black and Hispanic communities should work to come up with programs that pass constitutional muster and do not result in a broad-brush approach to crime-fighting.
As for Attorney General Holder’s edict that low-level drug offenders no longer be sent to prison, there is widespread agreement for such a decision because crimes related to crack cocaine are on a downward trend. In addition, the cost associated with such incarceration can no longer be justified.
According to the Times, state and federal lawmakers enacted a wave of tough-on-crime measures that resulted in an 800 percent increase in the number of prisoners in the U.S. The increase was mostly among black and Hispanic men.
But, if prison isn’t the answer, then drug treatment must be. Federal and state governments have a responsibility to ensure that programs designed to address the issue of drug abuse are adequately funded.