HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (CN) — Donald Trump’s revisionist history of stop-and-frisk in New York City, on full display at Monday night’s presidential debate, could have been written by the law enforcement unions that endorsed him.
In Trump’s telling, “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani created a program called stop-and-frisk in the 1990s, which almost singlehandedly brought crime to historic lows until one liberal judge ended the only tool saving Gotham from the forces of darkness.
Giuliani himself echoed this self-aggrandizing narrative on Fox News following the debate.
According to Trump, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg had been on the cusp of overturning this dangerous ruling, until his feckless successor Bill DeBlasio gave up the good fight and swung back open the gates of disorder.
It’s a good yarn, and his surrogates all wove variations of it in spin alley. So good, in fact, that even the Democrats have struggled to untangle all of the lies packed into it.
The Democratic National Committee’s new president Donna Brazile came closest.
“Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional largely because people, innocent people, simply because of the way they looked, were stopped,” Brazile told reporters “They were stopped because of just being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and someone decided that they had to have been part of a dragnet.”
Here, Brazile got the basic facts right, but she was wrong on the law.
The NYPD has stopped millions of mostly black and Latino men through its stop-and-frisk program, reaching a height of 685,724 searches in 2011.
Police always justified these stops as a hunt for guns and drugs, but the NYPD’s data showed that they only found firearms in 0.15 percent of cases and contraband in roughly 2 percent.
Amid controversy over the program, the NYPD has become more search-shy over the last five years, and statistics dropped to 24,000 street stops last year. Crime also took a nosedive over that period, despite Trump’s claims to contrary.
But there’s still one gaping hole in Brazile’s summary: stop-and-frisk was never eliminated.
The NYPD still can stop people on the streets, and did so more than 65 times a day last year, under the 1968 Supreme Court precedent of Terry v. Ohio.
Contrary to popular legend, Giuliani did not invent searching young black and Latino men on U.S. streets, but he did help ramp up this practice to historic levels. And a federal judge has now decided that court intervention is necessary to make sure police are conducting street stops legally.
This may seem like a legalistic quibble, but the point is important because Trump is defending not the existence of the program, but the rampant, unconstitutional targeting of people of color.
Brazile’s imprecision made her praise an action that the court never took.
“So I think it was the right move for the court and the judge to decide that it was unconstitutional,” she said.
Hillary Clinton made a similar mistake on debate night, but she landed blows on her greater point bruising Trump over what she described as his “long record of engaging in racist behavior,” starting with the Department of Justice’s civil-rights lawsuit against him for discriminating against black tenants in 1973.
Clinton could also have mentioned Trump’s tabloid-driven campaign to execute the so-called “Central Park Five,” a group of black and Latino teenagers prosecuted for rape in the 1980s but ultimately vindicated on appeal.
At the time, Trump placed newspaper ads implicitly calling for those young men to be killed, through editorials playing on racist stereotypes of young “misfits” and “thugs.”
Clinton had been largely missing in action from the debate on stop and frisk while a New York senator during its height in the 2000s, but she had a passionate voice against it on debate night.
“Stop and frisk was found to be unconstitutional and, in part, because it was found to be ineffective,” she said.
But stop and frisk is still on the books, and the judge who reformed the program found that its effectiveness was irrelevant.
In essence, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said that the NYPD’s program did not work, but even if it had, that would not justify police violating a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights against being stopped on the street, searched and humiliated without reasonable suspicion of a crime.
While the Democrats botched the subtle but important distinctions on this issue, Republicans walking around spin alley have wholeheartedly embraced an alternate reality.
Rep. Peter King of Long Island, in a Trumpian aversion to understatement, said Scheindlin made “one of the worst mistakes ever made” in reforming the program.
“The judge in that case was so biased,” the congressman said. “It was unprecedented. The U.S. Court of Appeals removed her from the case, and de Blasio as mayor refused to prosecute the appeal.”
Scheindlin was recused by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals for responding to a campaign by Mayor Bloomberg that depicted her as biased in the New York Daily News. The appellate court did not find Scheindlin to be biased, but said that she created an appearance of bias by entering into the tabloid fray.
Though Trump is now claiming the city was on the verge of victory, Bloomberg’s broader appeal of the case had been flailing in court when his successor dropped it.
On the three-person panel, Circuit Judge John Walker compared Scheindlin’s ruling to the desegregation order against George Wallace, and Circuit Judge Barrington Parker also let the city lawyers know that their case stood on shaky ground.
“Adhering to constitutional rules might complicate the lives of police officers,” Parker said. “But that’s not what we’re all about here.”
Mayor de Blasio gave up what would have likely been a losing fight and dropped the city’s appeal, and statistics show that New York City is now the safest metropolis in the United States.
King refused to believe this data, insisting that “in some areas, crime has gone up.”
Pressed about which areas, King said that he “could get that” information, before ceding a little ground in his argument.
“I know the murder rate has not gone up, but other serious crimes have,” the congressman claimed. “In fact, some have spiked dramatically. There was one reported last month that was 37 percent. I think it was robbery.”
King’s vagueness makes this one difficult to fact-check, but it is possible that the congressman had been thinking of a 37 percent decline in crime in Baltimore – which does not rely on stop and frisk.
With his attack on the stop-and-frisk judge, Trump has now lashed out at the federal judiciary twice when a judge did not rule his way. The tycoon also claimed that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage made him biased in a racketeering class action accusing Trump University of defrauding students.
Hofstra law professor Julian Ku sees Trump’s penchant for attacking judges as troubling.
“He clearly thinks judges are biased, right?” Ku said. “He always makes it personal, so he clearly doesn’t think of the legal system in the more traditional way, that they’re just applying the law. So I think that definitely reflected in a lot of his comments, and for him, he’s a businessman so he’s like, ‘Who do I have to pay to do what I need to do?'”
Ku added that this is “not great” for rule of law in the United States.
“Now, the president is advised by a bunch of lawyers, and there’s this whole infrastructure in the U.S. government,” he said.
But the professor noted that the president’s restraints only go so far.
A President Trump “can do a lot of really shady things,” Ku said.
“He can order investigations of political enemies, and that would be technically legal. He could go after judges, at least rhetorically.”
He added: “So, I think lawyers are worried.”
Top photo: Sen. Peter King, R-New York, addresses reporters in spin alley at Monday evening’s presidential debate.
Lower photo: Democratic National Committee president Donna Brazile in spin alley.
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