Sunday, June 2, 2013

Stop and frisk

It’s not something I ever lose sleep over; as a middle-aged white guy I’m not very likely to get braced and patted down by a cop on the lookout for guns or drugs. It’s notorious, however, that if I were younger, darker and with lower-slung jeans, I’d have had to get used to the experience. And I imagine I would be just as irked as all the black and Latin kids who complain of harassment at the hands of police officers sweeping through their neighborhoods.

New York City is currently awaiting a federal judge’s ruling in a class-action suit calling into question the NYPD’s aggressive stop-and-frisk policy, to which the mayor and the police commissioner attribute much of the city’s spectacular reduction in crime over the past couple of decades. There’s no question that New York is a safer place now, by far, than it was twenty years ago. The question is how much stop-and-frisk has to do with that, and whether it burdens certain demographic groups disproportionately.

I think stop-and-frisk certainly has something to do with the falling crime rate; human beings respond to deterrents, and if you think you’re likely to get thrown on the wall and patted down on your way to the store, you’re a lot less likely to carry that nine-millimeter you bought off your cousin around in your jacket pocket. That means you’re also less likely to whip it out and loose off a couple of shots the next time somebody cuts you off in traffic or insults your sister. So I would imagine that stop-and-frisk has reduced by some non-negligible percentage the amount of violence on New York City streets.

But I also think that it’s probably not the principal element in reducing crime, since so few of the people who get stopped and frisked (around ten percent) are subsequently arrested for a crime. Now, ten percent is non-negligible, and I’m glad that those ten percent got nabbed for whatever they were doing or had done. But you always have to do a cost-benefit analysis, and if you’re making enemies out there in the community, you have to ask yourself if the cost is too high.

I think the main factor in reducing crime in New York was indeed better police work, but I’m not referring to stop-and-frisk. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the principal factor was the felony arrest rate, meaning the percentage of offenders tracked down and arrested after the crime was committed. A rise in that rate means an increased deterrent to criminal activity, and that rise can be attributed to more cops on the job (NYPD numbers went up by 35% in the nineties). We’ve always relied on deterrence rather than preventive measures to keep crime down in this country. We’ve recognized that we can’t eliminate crime and hoped that punishing it as consistently as possible will keep it at an acceptable level. Stop-and-frisk is a preventive measure, and you probably are in favor of it until it starts happening to you a lot.

The aspect of stop-and-frisk most often cited as objectionable, of course, is its racial imbalance. The accusation of racial profiling is the main temperature-raiser on this issue. The great majority of people targeted by stop-and-frisk are young minority males. And as I said before, I’m sure I’d be annoyed, too, if I was getting routinely patted down while minding my own business. But racial profiling is a slippery concept, and it’s hard to see how some kind of profiling can be avoided. Profiling is what we call applying hard-won experience in an attempt to anticipate, and that’s what a good cop does, every minute of every shift. Now, profiling can be smart or it can be stupid, and the concern for a police department should be to make it as smart as possible. Skin color can become a shortcut for a lazy cop or one with a chip on his shoulder. But as even the federal judge in the trial pointed out, if a majority of the population in a high-crime area is black, you’d sort of expect the majority of people getting stopped and frisked there to be black, too. And where else would you expect the police to carry out its most aggressive interventions?

The question to ask about stop-and-frisk is whether the police have the right to stop anybody, black, white or whatever, and search them just because they think they might be up to no good. The Supreme Court recognized in Terry vs. Ohio in 1968 that sometimes cops have to take the initiative; if a police officer believes “that his safety or that of others is endangered, he may make a reasonable search for weapons of the person believed by him to be armed and dangerous.” I think we can all concede that there are times when cops need to be aggressive. But one of the primary benefits of living in a free country is that you can walk around minding your own business without worrying about passing policemen. And if a whole lot of people are saying that they’re tired of worrying about passing policemen, maybe it’s time to take a close look at the policies that led to that. Maybe it’s time to tighten the strictures on stop-and-frisk, not because we’re soft on crime but because we recognize the tug-of-war between costs and benefits.

Tightening the strictures doesn’t mean doing away with smart aggressive policing; there’s a balance to be struck somewhere. A lot of New Yorkers remember the bad old days and don’t want them to come back. Getting mugged isn’t any more fun than getting stopped and frisked, and if we constrain the police too much there will be a different reason why we can’t walk around minding our own business. But it should be possible to strike that balance. The deterrent effect of high arrest and conviction rates should be enough to keep our streets safe without turning whole sectors of the population against the police.

Sam Reaves