An Inspector General for the Police: An Assurance of Constitutional Safeguards

Although constitutional protections have been codified into specific rules for the NYPD, we have little assurance they are being followed. An inspector general could help the police ease these concerns and hew closer to constitutional requirements in their efforts to keep the city safe.

April 9, 2013

Originally published in the New York Times' Room for Debate

New York City has become safer over the last decade. Yet relations between the police and minority communities have become ever more strained.

Much of the tension stems from the N.Y.P.D.’s stop and frisk policy, which disproportionately targets black and Latino men. Muslim communities are troubled by the NYPD’s intelligence operation, which collects information about their daily lives that often seems to have no link to terrorism or crime.

Crucial constitutional protections — like the requirement of equal treatment and the need for reasonable suspicion before searching someone — have been codified into specific rules for the N.Y.P.D. But we have little assurance that they are followed.An inspector-general could help the police ease these concerns and hew closer to constitutional requirements in their efforts to keep the city safe.

As part of the 2003 settlement of the first stop and frisk lawsuit, Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued an order forbidding the N.Y.P.D. from relying on race, color, ethnicity or national origin as the determinative factor in undertaking action. Yet since these rules were adopted, the stop and frisk program has grown 450 percent, with nearly five million people — 81 percent of whom are minorities — stopped, questioned and searched.

These numbers have led many to ask whether the police are following the racial profiling ban. An inspector general would be ideally situated to audit the records of stop and frisk encounters for compliance.

Similarly, the N.Y.P.D.’s surveillance of Muslim communities has raised questions about police fidelity to the prohibition on religion-based targeting and to a 1985 consent decree that restrains their monitoring of First Amendment activities. Documents recently filed in this case show that the N.Y.P.D. has informants or undercover officers in at least 30 area mosques. Interested citizens cannot delve into police files to evaluate whether the widespread use of informants was justified or a reflection of biases. But an inspector general can do just that.

The lawyers challenging these practices know the difficulty of ensuring that police comply with rules and have asked for court-appointed police monitors to do so. We should not have to wait for decades of litigation to obtain oversight of N.Y.P.D. activities.

On these and other police operations, an inspector general would serve as front-end protection against illegality. Periodic reports from the inspector general would increase much-needed, impartial public information about police practices, helping elected officials perform their own oversight duties.

And, while an inspector general’s recommendations are not binding, the experience of the F.B.I. and the Los Angeles police, among others, shows that they can be highly influential in shaping lawful and effective law enforcement practices.

As the nation’s premier police department, the N.Y.P.D. should embrace the best practices developed by its peers and commit to working unreservedly with an inspector general to create an even better police force.