New York City police stops of hundreds of thousands of people each year are in the spotlight as city lawmakers consider setting new rules for the stop-and-frisk practice and even appointing an inspector general to monitor the police department.
It is too soon to say what laws, if any, will result from City Council hearings on the proposals, beginning Wednesday.
But after years of complaints that the practice discriminates against minorities, the hearings signal the public debate has gotten loud enough that lawmakers, not to mention candidates in next year's mayoral election, feel they have to be heard.
The controversy is playing out amid the contest to succeed term-limited Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has defended the practice. All the likely top contenders have made a point of saying they are concerned about stop-and-frisks, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has near-total control over which efforts get to a council vote.
Quinn said at an unrelated news conference Tuesday that she wants "ongoing reform" of stop-and-frisks but hasn't decided whether to support any of the proposals.
Besides creating an inspector general's post, the measures would require officers to explain why they are stopping people, tell them when they have a right to refuse a search, and hand out business cards identifying themselves. Another proposal would give people more latitude to sue over stops they considered biased.
In stop-and-frisks, officers approach, question and sometimes pat down people police say were behaving suspiciously — acting like a lookout or carrying a pry bar, for example — but weren't necessarily sought in any particular crime.
The stops became an integral part of the city's law enforcement in the mid-1990s, but the numbers have risen since Bloomberg took office in 2002. Officers made a record 684,330 of the stops last year, seven times the number in 2002. They stopped about 337,000 in the first six months of this year.
Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly credit the practice with deterring violence and helping drive down New York's crime rate to the lowest among the country's 25 most populous cities, as measured by the FBI.
"The last thing we need is to have some politician or judge getting involved with setting policy," Bloomberg said at an unrelated news conference Monday. "Because you won't be safe anymore. Today you are."
But stop-and-frisk critics point to other statistics: Some 87 percent of those stopped last year involved blacks or Hispanics, and about 12 percent of the stops resulted in arrests or tickets. Opponents say the figures add up to racial profiling that does little for public safety.
"We all want a safe city … but discriminatory policing has grown significantly in recent years. I don't believe it actually makes us safer because it frays the bond of trust between police and the community," said Councilman Brad Lander, a lead sponsor of the inspector general proposal.