A free society must always keep trying to strike the proper balance between civil liberties and security. And Gov. David Paterson helped restore that balance last week when he signed legislation stopping New York City police from storing the names, addresses and descriptions of the large numbers of people who are stopped and frisked each year without facing charges. He called the practice “not a policy for a democracy,” and he is right.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly tried hard to get Paterson to veto the bill, saying the city would be losing a key crime-fighting tool. But the police would still be able to stop and frisk people if they have “reasonable suspicion” of a crime, just not keep personal information on those who are neither arrested nor issued a summons. And that accounts for 90 percent of all those stopped — 575,000 last year and roughly 3 million since 2004 — suggesting that the cops’ suspicion is not all that reasonable, and they are using the policy to harass innocent people and/or expand the database.
Ironically, the police were required to start the database in 2001 to determine if their stops disproportionately target minorities. And they do — about 90 percent of all stops are of blacks and Hispanics, predominantly males. That’s not in itself a sign of racism, since statistics show that those groups are disproportionately involved in crimes, especially violent ones. But the database was supposed to be limited to the person’s gender, age and race, not include name and address.
State law requires the sealing of someone’s record if they are arrested as the result of a stop but later cleared of criminal charges or have their charges downgraded to a violation. That makes it even more outrageous to keep information on someone who is not even arrested in the first place — someone who is innocent. The police argument that this information may be helpful in solving a crime at some future date isn’t good enough.