The Agenda

How Outrage Works in Municipal Politics

Bill De Blasio, New York city’s mayor-elect, has named William J. Bratton as New York city’s next police commissioner, an appointment that may well by the most important of his tenure. Bratton has had a distinguished career as a chief law enforcement officer in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, and he has enjoyed a high-flying career as a consultant for cities and a wide array of private sector clients. He has also positioned himself as a kinder, gentler alternative to the policing strategies pursued by Raymond Kelly, New York city’s long-serving police commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg. One of De Blasio’s central priorities has been rolling back stop-and-frisk. Yet as Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker observes, there appears to be a good deal of daylight between De Blasio’s views on stop-and-frisk and Bratton’s:

Bratton emphatically endorsed stop-and-frisk as a police tactic. “First off, stop-question-and-frisk has been around forever,” he told me. “It is known by stop-and-frisk in New York, but other cities describe it other ways, like stop-question-and-frisk or Terry stops. It’s based on a Supreme Court case from 1968, Terry v. Ohio, which focused very significantly on it. Stop-and-frisk is such a basic tool of policing. It’s one of the most fundamental practices in American policing. If cops are not doing stop-and-frisk, they are not doing their jobs. It is a basic, fundamental tool of police work in the whole country. If you do away with stop-and-frisk, this city will go down the chute as fast as anything you can imagine.”

One assumes that it is the new mayor’s view that will ultimately prevail. Or perhaps De Blasio will defer to Bratton, who will be tasked with reforming stop-and-frisk just enough to lend surface plausibility to the claim that the new policy is meaningfully different from the old policy and we’ll call it a day. Anti-stop-and-frisk agitation might wane if the civic activists who’ve pressed the case against the practice decide that their “seat at the table” in the De Blasio administration is too valuable to jeopardize. So just as the election of Barack Obama as president contributed to the evaporation of the anti-war movement, as many anti-war activists were partisans first, it could be that civil libertarian objections will fade into insignificance once New York city has a mayor who is more accommodating towards local public sector unions and other left-of-center pressure groups. Michael Bloomberg, lest we forget, was very much a technocratic liberal, who despite the caricature painted by his rivals was an enthusiastic defender of anti-poverty efforts. But he was a liberal who wasn’t part of the local Democratic machine, and who used his wealth and independence to entrench the power of local business elites and foundation executives to the exclusion of vocal members of the city’s permanent activist class. De Blasio won’t, and can’t, do the same thing. My guess is that the outrage that had been directed at the mayor and the police will largely shift to some other more convenient target — unless, that is, the new mayor proves more independent than we have any right to expect, in which case the outrage will presumably continue.

(And incidentally, the Furman Center has prepared a remarkable infographic documenting the extent of the crime decline in New York city from 2000 to 2011, and how it has been distributed across the city’s neighborhoods.)

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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