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Editorial: The rights of gangs

A bill introduced in the City Council that is designed to curb gang violence raises serious issues that need to be resolved. The bill, which now appears dead in the water, would give the police the right to question and roust suspected gang members found loitering on city streets. Civil libertarians fear the bill would give police too much power.

It is the constant challenge of a free and violence-plagued society: How does government balance its duty to protect the safety and quality of life of some citizens without infringing on the rights of others? Those who pretend this is easy do a public disservice. Those who have used this pending legislation as an opportunity to bash the NYPD and to advance their own political agenda do an even greater disservice.

At a meeting held in the Maranatha Baptist Church in Queens Village, Leroy Gadsden, the chairman of the NAACP's Police Community Relations Committee, conceded that the legislation “has some good, some productivity.” But he added “it also has some negativity.” Fair enough.

But Mr. Gadsden wasn't through. “Our concern,” he said “is that this bill gives a whole lot of power to the NYPD. The question is: Can this police department, under the rule of Giuliani, be mature enough to handle this bill?”

This is irresponsible talk coming from a man whose responsibility is “police community relations.” We assume that what the NAACP had in mind was improving relations, not trashing them. For the sake of Mr. Gadsden and his superiors at the NAACP, we repeat the obvious: New York City is safer today than it has been in the last 20 years. Every major category of crime is down. The city that was once considered one of the most dangerous metropolitan areas in the country is now one of the safest.

To make the city safe and to keep drug dealers from selling poison to our children, police officer risk their lives every day by going undercover in buy-and-bust operations. There is no more effective way of making a case against a drug dealer. And there is no more dangerous job in New York City.

Are these police officers mature enough for Mr. Gadsden?

The challenge presented by the growth of violent gangs is particularly difficult. The influence of gangs such as the Bloods, the Crips and the Latin Kings threatens to undo the gains of the last seven years. The power of the gang comes from fear and intimidation. These gangs exert enormous influence over children who are most vulnerable, especially those living in poverty and in dysfunctional families.

But how far should society go in its effort to curb gang violence? The bill in question would allow police officers to confront known gang members and ask them what they are doing on a specific street. The Civil Liberties Union maintains that such laws are not necessary. The ACLU opposes any type of preemptive approach to gang violence.

The fears are understandable. Parents of “good kids” don’t want their children subjected to random questioning by a police officer on the way to buy a gallon of milk at the corner store. But the same parents don’t want their child razor-slashed from ear to ear by a young gang recruit. And they don’t want to go to the door one day to learn from a police officer that their child was killed in the playground when a basketball game erupted in gang violence.

The bill in question will not become law. The ball is now in the court of the NAACP and the NYCLU. What are they prepared to do to keep your children from becoming the next victim of senseless gang violence? Our guess is not much.

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