NEW YORK (AP) — Crime rates are low enough that New York can lay claim to being America's safest big city. The police commissioner is so popular that some have urged him to run for mayor.
And yet, city lawmakers are discussing proposals to rein in the New York Police Department, including the appointment of an independent inspector general to monitor it.
It's too soon to say what laws, if any, will result from City Council hearings in September and in the coming weeks on the proposals, largely aimed at officers' hundreds of thousands of "stop-and-frisk" stops on streets each year.
But after years of complaints that the stops are racially discriminatory, the hearings signal that 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, whether they want to amplify the chorus of concern or talk back to it.
As chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, City Councilman Peter Vallone is heading Wednesday's session. Not that he's behind any of the proposals — the former prosecutor's views on them range from ambivalent to vehemently opposed.
But he wants the hearing to draw public attention to them, and he says it's time to talk about whether police are conducting so many stop-and-frisks that they are a burden on communities and officers alike. "We may have reached that point," he said. "That's a discussion that's worth having."
The measures represent city lawmakers' most robust move in several years toward confronting what critics call racial profiling and problematic tactics at the nation's largest police department.
In protests, courts and council hearings, stop-and-frisks are a focal point for those seeking to push back against a police force seen as a potent guardian of public safety in the post-Sept. 11 era. But also facing questions over matters ranging from an officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed drug suspect in February, to the department's widespread spying on Muslims, as detailed in a series of recent articles by The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the Bronx district attorney's office has concluded stop-and-frisks are so questionable that it is refusing to prosecute some resulting cases unless officers are interviewed, instead of just filling out paperwork.
And the stop-and-frisk debate has gotten a political charge amid the contest to succeed the term-limited Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has defended the practice. All the top likely mayoral contenders have made a point of saying they're 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 that she wants "ongoing reform" of stop-and-frisks but hadn't decided whether to support any of the specific proposals.
Stop-and-frisks entail officers approaching, questioning and sometimes patting down people police say meet crime suspects' descriptions or are behaving suspiciously — acting like a lookout or carrying a pry bar, for example.
Besides the inspector general proposal, others up for discussion Wednesday 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 would give people more latitude to sue over stops they considered biased.
"None of these bills are going to solve the problem entirely ... but it does take a leap forward into better policing," said City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a lead sponsor of all four proposals. Williams, who is black, was handcuffed and detained by police at a parade last year in an episode he felt reflected racial bias.
Stop-and-frisks 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. Killings in the city dropped by about 20 percent from 2001 to last year, even as the number of officers dropped from about 40,000 to 35,000.
"The last thing we need is to have some politician or judge getting involved with setting policy," Bloomberg said at an unrelated news conference. "Because you won't be safe anymore. Today you are."
Stop-and-frisk critics point to other statistics that they say add up to racial profiling that does little for public safety: Blacks or Hispanics accounted for some 87 percent of those stopped last year, and only about 12 percent of the stops resulted in arrests or tickets.
At know-your-rights sessions for gay, lesbian, and transgender minority youths, at least three-quarters of the hands go up when organizers ask who has been stopped and frisked, said Andrea Ritchie, co-coordinator of a group called Streetwise and Safe. It's part of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups supporting the stop-and-frisk proposals.
Recent polls have found New Yorkers divided about the issue, with sharp contrasts among how whites and minorities view it.
The police department has taken some steps to address the controversy. Kelly announced in May that some officers would get special training on conducting a proper stop, and the department would keep a closer eye on officers whose stops have spurred complaints.
What do you think?
Associated Press writers Meghan Barr and Samantha Gross contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.