Newark gets 'frisk' law down pat

When it comes to a enforcing law, the most critical details are in the implementation.

Case in point: Newark, N.J., and New York City both have implemented “stop and frisk” procedures. It doesn’t take a constitutional scholar to realize that this is the sort of thing that can lead to violations of a person’s basic rights as an American citizen.

“Stop and frisk” procedures impact the crime rate of the jurisdiction in which they are practiced. They remove the opportunity to commit a violent act and are seen by many as pro-active law enforcement.

In some ways, it’s similar to sobriety checkpoints and other strategies that law enforcement agencies, which usually only come into play after a crime has been committed, use to head off potential criminal activity.

In New York’s case, a federal judge ruled Monday that its stop-and-frisk procedures are violations of civil rights, namely the Fourth and 14th Amendments. U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin determined that racial minorities were unfairly targeted by the manner in which New York Police Department officers implemented the procedures.

As might be expected, the city is appealing the ruling. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is leaving the office in a few months, has loudly supported the procedures, noting that they have been effective in keeping crime rates down in the Big Apple. He certainly doesn’t want this to be the last thing people remember about him when he steps down after a dozen years. And the ruling could impact things on a federal level. President Barack Obama is considering Raymond Kelly, the city’s police commissioner, for a possible nomination to become the next secretary of homeland security.

There’s always the possibility that Scheindlin will be overturned by a higher court. But regardless of whether that happens, New York — and other cities and communities — could take a look at Newark and the way it is implementing its version of “stop and frisk.”

The difference is the transparency, an overused term in government these days, but one that applies here. Each month, Newark’s police department will provide the public with hard data. Newark residents, and anyone else, for that matter, will know the race, age, gender and English proficiency of each person that Newark officers stop. The policy also require the department to make public its internal affairs information, including the number and nature of complaints filed against officers and the outcomes of those complaints.

With that type of information available on a monthly basis, it won’t take years and lawsuits to collect data that show how well — or how poorly — the procedures are being used.

Any time law enforcement takes a step toward actively intervening in potential crime, it’s treading in a delicate area. There’s a greater chance that the effort can move from crime prevention to rights violations. And that change wouldn’t necessarily come all at once. It could easily be an accumulation of actions, with each nudging enforcement just a little further in the wrong direction.

Hopefully, the Newark model will be one that others will emulate. We all want our streets to be safer, but we should have to check our rights at our front door to enjoy them.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board