A New Script for Law and Order?

Anyone following the stop and frisk story knew that Judge Shira Scheindlin would curb the practice, but the reaction among Republican mayoral hopefuls and their supporters was noteworthy. Glee is too strong a word for it, but GOP boosters clearly believe the Democrats have walked into a trap with their frequent criticism of NYPD practices.

“CUFFED!” exclaimed the New York Post, echoing the battle cry of “don’t handcuff the police, let them do their job.” At least five pages were devoted to the decision, with one story explaining that mayoral candidates split along party lines, with Democrats supporting it, Republicans blasting it. Conveniently, there was also a full page ad from John Catsimatidis, the grocery billionaire candidate, pledging to hire more cops.

One particularly foolish piece put stop and frisk right up there with apple pie: “Moms Bash Judge’s Stop-Frisk Ruling” quoted one woman saying, “If someone had stop-and-frisked the man who killed my grandson, maybe he would still be here.”

A New York Times poll and its reporting on recent crime stats put these headlines in perspective. The newspaper reported a significant decline in homicides during the first half of the year — to 154, from 202 in 2012 — at a time when Commissioner Ray Kelly engineered a notable decrease in stops and frisks. Murders were less than one a day, the first time in memory this happened over an extended period.

The poll confirmed that the trend toward diminished fears about crime continues, but found that roughly 50 percent of the public incorrectly believes crime has either increased or stayed the same during the Bloomberg years — a large pool of voters potentially resistant to calls for relaxing police procedures. More than half of those polled have lived in the city for more than 21 years — the group most likely to vote and one that remembers the bad old days. The number of those who know that crime has continued its decline in the past dozen years stands at 44 percent, meaning that those who understand current crime data dynamics also approach a majority.

As a result, the November election could test whether old fears around law and order can recreate another Republican mayoral majority. The Times poll sampled more than 1,000 registered voters and has a three-percent margin of error. Asked their opinion of stop and frisk, 50 percent approved and 47% didn’t.

Crime is certainly a gay issue. The unspeakable May murder of Mark Carson walking on Sixth Avenue, the chronic assaults on transgender New Yorkers, and the recent spate of fag bashings in Chelsea, near Madison Square Garden, in Soho, and in the East Village amply demonstrate the stake we have in a tranquil city. But with memories of times when gays were routinely arrested by a hostile police force, the LGBT community has traditionally favored a tailored and proportionate response — letting the punishment fit the crime.

Since Ed Koch was first elected mayor in 1977, law and order has consistently been a winning issue. Even David Dinkins, in defeating first Koch and then Rudy Giuliani in 1989, promised to hire more police. Of course, he served only one term when Giuliani came back four years later claiming he wasn’t controlling crime. That was the start of 20 years of Republican rule.

This could be the first election where candidates seriously — perhaps successfully — question lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key justice. The arguments against mass incarceration and racial profiling are slowly winning. The November election will show if progress has reached critical mass among the voters.

In the meantime, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has thrown his weight behind fear. The communities that are most policed have shown the biggest drop in crime, but do their residents get any credit for the improvement? Not in the media. Mayor Mike sunk to a new low last week, suggesting that people living in public housing should be subjected to fingerprint scans to gain access to their own homes on a daily basis. And, his impressive results in further cutting crime have one important offset — the rising rates of marijuana arrests resulting in good measure from stops and frisks that achieve nothing of any greater value.

Bloomberg has long been an advocate of the surveillance state. In 2007, as the economy was tanking, New York State stopped fingerprinting food stamp applicants. Here in the city, the mayor insisted it be allowed to continue.

November’s election comes at a critical moment in the nation’s discussion of how to balance safety and civil liberties. Edward Snowden has just sent the Washington Post an audit of the National Security Agency that revealed it violated its own rules against intercepting conversations an average of 7.6 times a day. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was unaware of the audit until the Post brought it to her attention. On this crucial issue of personal freedom, checks and balances aren’t working.

November’s election is a chance to move the city in a new direction. On many issues, the GOP contenders are supporting the old ways. A new era of Democratic rule in New York may not bring immediate change, but we shouldn’t let blather about Weiner’s sexting or Spitzer’s dates with working women obscure the significance of this election for the city’s future.