The truth about stop-and-frisk

This is a must-read piece by Heather Mac Donald in which she explains the pro-active stop-and-frisk methods used by the New York Police Department that have greatly reduced violent crime, and also replies with devastating effect to the usual claims by the black leaders and the left that the police are profiling minorities.

Saving minority lives
New York Post
March 25, 2010

The New York Police Department recently released its stop-and-frisk data from 2009, triggering the usual denunciations from anti- cop activists and pundits—none of whom understand policing or, apparently, the reality of New York crime.

These advocates purport to defend the interests of the city’s black and Hispanic residents. If their agenda were realized, however, the result would be thousands more minority lives lost to violence and a return to the anarchy that once engulfed many minority neighborhoods.

Last year, the NYPD made 575,304 stops of civilians, an 8 percent rise over 2008. The stops led to the seizure of more than 7,600 weapons, including four machine guns, 36 assault weapons and nearly 700 handguns. Thousands more illegal weapons undoubtedly weren’t carried to the streets in the first place, for fear of detection during a stop.

By no means coincidentally, crime in the city dropped 10 percent in 2009. Homicides fell an astonishing 19 percent from the prior year, to a low not seen since records were first kept in 1963.

NYPD critics ignore the crime decline and focus instead on the alleged racial disparities in police stops: Blacks were 55 percent of all stop subjects, though they are 24 percent of the city’s population. Whites were 10 percent of all stops, and 35 percent of the population. Therefore, argue such lawsuit factories as the Center for Constitutional Rights, the department is illegally profiling minorities on the basis of their race. (The center is suing the NYPD over its stop policy.)

This argument suppresses the most important factor in determining what police do: fight crime. It is victims’ experience of crime that drives police deployment and tactics. And those victims are found overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods, preyed upon by local residents.

According to police reports filed by victims of violent crime, blacks committed 66 percent of all violent crimes in the first half of 2009—and 80 percent of all shootings. Together, blacks and Hispanics committed 98 percent of all shootings. Blacks committed nearly 70 percent of all robberies.

Whites, by contrast, committed 5 percent of all violent crimes in the first half of 2009. They committed 1.8 percent of all shootings, and less than 5 percent of all robberies.

Given the enormous disparities in crime and victimization rates, the police can’t fight crime without generating disparate stop rates.

PURSUANT to the policing revolution begun in 1994, the NYPD targets manpower at areas where crime patterns are breaking out. Once there, officers are expected to look for suspicious behavior and intervene before a new crime occurs.

If customers are being held up at knifepoint at ATMs in East Flatbush, for example, more cops will be deployed there. Two teens intently watching an ATM user from across the street who quickly move away when they see an officer observing them will likely be questioned.

If thieves are preying on senior citizens in East New York, someone walking closely behind an elderly lady in the 75th Precinct and looking furtively over his shoulder stands a good chance of getting stopped by an officer who has been stationed there for just that purpose.

This proactive style of policing led to the largest crime drop in recent memory. And the biggest returns were in New York’s minority neighborhoods—because that is where crime was and still is the highest.

Blacks and Hispanics have made up 79 percent of the 78 percent decline in homicide victims since 1990. Over 10,000 black and Hispanic males are alive today who would have been dead had homicide rates remained at early ’90s levels.

By the late 1990s, robberies and burglaries were plummeting in once-desolate neighborhoods—which allowed economic activity and property values there to rise dramatically. Senior citizens could go shopping without fear of getting mugged. Children no longer had to sleep in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets.

The advocates who argue that stop rates should mirror census data must explain why public safety would be better served by stripping officers from the areas that need them most and deploying them in neighborhoods where people are not being victimized to anywhere near the same degree.

GO to any police-community meeting in Harlem or Bed ford-Stuyvesant and you’ll hear residents asking: Please send more cops; please keep the dealers off the corner; please crack down on neighborhood disorder.

Ironically, police can’t respond to these heartfelt demands for public safety without generating “disproportionate” stop data that can be used against the NYPD.

If a grandmother in a South Bronx housing project asks the police to break up the drug dealing in her building’s lobby that is terrifying her and other law-abiding tenants, officers will likely question the youths hanging out there. Those stops are not based on race; they are not “racial profiling.” They are generated by a citizen request for protection. Nevertheless, they will be counted against the NYPD by the profiling activists.

Multiply such stops hundreds of times a day, and you get the disparities that the Center for Constitutional Rights claims are the result of police bias.

Critics such as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert also charge that the percentage of stops that conclude with an arrest or summons—12 percent—shows that the NYPD is abusing its authority. These self-styled policing sages never say what a “proper” stop-to-arrest ratio should be—40 percent? 80 percent?

They also fail to point out that an identical ratio of stops of whites, blacks and Hispanics result in arrests and recovered weapons—suggesting that the police are using the same degree of reasonable suspicion in making a stop.

More important: The criticism misunderstands the purpose of stops—which is not to make an arrest for an already-committed crime, but to deter criminal activity before it happens.

It is not the case, as Herbert incessantly alleges, that everyone stopped who isn’t arrested or given a summons is necessarily “totally innocent.” Someone stopped in a high-crime area because he appears to be casing a location or victim or acting as a lookout may well have been doing just that, but there will be no evidence of casing on which to base an arrest. Nevertheless, that stop will likely have prevented a crime by alerting the participants that the police are on to them.

Even if a person stopped is innocent of any wrongdoing, it doesn’t follow that the stop wasn’t legally justified or that it wasn’t part of sound public policy to deter crime. Yes, it may be frustrating or humiliating for the person stopped—but the solution is for officers to do a better job explaining to people why they were stopped, not to dismantle proactive policing.

The advocates’ final argument is that the sheer number of stops—over 575,000—is, as Herbert puts it, an “outrage.” Again, the cop-bashers don’t suggest a proper number. Measured against the number of arrests in 2009—400,000—the stop rate is easily proportional.

NO other public-policy change of the last quarter century has had as positive an impact on the city’s poor as New York’s policing revolution. The city’s homicide rate is two-fifths that of Chicago—whose police department generally eschews proactive stop and frisks. New York juveniles under the age of 17—nearly all black and Hispanics—are killed at one-quarter the rate of those in the Windy City.

Is crime low enough already, so that the police can go back to reactive patrol, as the advocates would wish? Last year, the 75th Precinct in East New York saw 24 murders and 678 robberies. Maybe that’s good enough—after all, that represents a 78 percent drop in murders and an 80 percent drop in robberies since 1990. But try telling those East New York victims and their families that the crime rate is as low as it needs to go.

Commissioner Ray Kelly is pushing his department hard to keep New York’s historic crime decline going. For the sake of the city’s striving poor, he is right to do so.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at City Journal and author of “Are Cops Racist?”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 28, 2010 04:51 PM | Send

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