NYT's Public Editor Thinks Latest Front-Page NYPD Racial Profiling Accusations Overstated

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has weighed in on the paper's latest attack on the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk tactics, under fire from liberal activists like Al Sharpton, in her March 29 blog post, "An Officer’s Secretly Recorded Words About ‘Stop and Frisk’ Cause a Firestorm," addressed a misleading and controversial (but typically slanted) March 21 story by reporter Joseph Goldstein based on a secret recording between a Bronx police officer and his commanding officer:

For years, the debate over the New York Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk tactics has centered on whether officers engage in racial profiling. Now, a recording suggests that, in at least one precinct, a person’s skin color can be a deciding factor in who is stopped.


The commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, urged the officer to be more active, emphasizing the need to conduct more street stops. “We go out there and we summons people,” Inspector McCormack said. The way to suppress violent crime, he said, was for officers to stop, question and, if necessary, frisk “the right people at the right time, the right location.”

The Times has long unfairly attacked as racial profiling the "stop and frisk" method of crime-fighting employed by the NYPD.

After the story was buffeted with criticism from both right and left, Sullivan addressed the outrage in a March 29 post, after confessing that the paper "has covered the stop-and-frisk program aggressively, questioning in many articles whether it is enmeshed with the reprehensible practice of racial profiling."

But one article -- a Page 1 story last Friday by Joseph Goldstein -- has caused a firestorm of criticism. It has drawn sharp and sustained protests from the Police Department and its legal department, and tough words from sources as diverse as the frequent police critic Leonard Levitt, a former Newsday columnist who writes the NYPD Confidential blog, and Heather Mac Donald, who frequently takes the Police Department’s point of view, writing in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute.

Sullivan talked to Police Department’s chief spokesman Paul Browne, reporter Goldstein, and editor, Carolyn Ryan, who defended Goldstein's story:

At the end of the conversation, Inspector McCormack suggested that, in Mott Haven, given crime patterns there, the officer should stop “male blacks 14 to 20, 21.” This is not a specific description of suspects, such as “black male, 14 to 20, wearing red hoodie and blue sneakers,” or “black male, known to hang out in xyz location or associate with xyz people.” It is an entire demographic....And, most significantly, in his course of this lengthy conversation with Officer Serrano, he defines “the right people” in terms of the broad demographic, rather than by their suspicious conduct -- like peering into apartment windows or evading police -- which is the only lawful basis for a stop, according to the Supreme Court. To critics of the N.Y.P.D., this is akin to racial profiling. And to us it suggests that the way the department’s strategy is communicated to officers is quite different from what N.Y.P.D. brass have described publicly.

Sullivan half-agreed, but countered that the article's presentation put undue weight on the racial profiling angle.

She’s right on many counts and says it well. I disagree, however, that the inspector said the officer “should stop” male blacks, but rather that male blacks were given as an example of those associated with past crimes. What’s more, the article is not presented as one about “how strategy is communicated.” It’s presented as something close to proof of racial profiling.

Sullivan also quoted a frequent police critic who nonetheless said that "there is a much more nuanced picture" than the one portrayed in the paper's influential front-page story. Sullivan, whose critiques so far have leaned to the left, concluded that her paper's claim of racial profiling was overblown.

The Times’s article strikes me as essentially accurate. But with its emphasis on one sentence – without enough context – and its presentation on the front page, it comes off as clear proof of racial profiling in the New York Police Department. (And there’s no doubt that it was interpreted just that way by a wide variety of readers. The Rev. Al Sharpton quickly demanded Inspector McCormack’s suspension, and a Times editorial the next day was headlined “Walking While Black in New York.”)

The facts, though certainly newsworthy, don’t rise to that “smoking gun” level.