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Stop and frisk and common sense

by  David A. Lehrer

June 12, 2013 | 4:11 pm

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a lucid and compelling op/ed by Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute entitled “How to Increase the Crime Rate Nationwide.”

In a politically incorrect piece, she argues why the likely outcome in New York’s widely followed “stop, question and frisk” case, presently before a United States District Court, might well have disastrous results far beyond the borders of Gotham or the Empire State.

The case, as generally reported, involves the New York Police Department’s practice of “stopping, questioning, and sometimes frisking individuals engaged in suspicious behavior.” What invariably accompanies reports about the case, and the NYPD’s practices, is that Blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionately large percentage of the individuals who are “stopped, questioned and frisked.” Blacks comprised 55% of those stopped by the police in 2012 while they are only 23% of the population of the city

At first blush, and the thrust of the plaintiffs’ --the Center for Constitutional Rights-- arguments, is that a stop rate at more than double the African American population of the city is prima facie evidence of racism at work.

What MacDonald so cogently points out is that the prevalent narrative and the selectively reported data don’t explain what is really going on.

Some jaw dropping facts help explain why so many Blacks and Hispanics are the subject of “stop, question and frisk.” MacDonald points out that “Blacks, for example, constituted 78% of shooting suspects and 74% of all shooting victims in 2012, even though they are less than 23% of the city’s population.” Whites, by contrast, committed just over 2% of shootings and were under 3% of shooting victims in 2012, though they are 35% of the populace.” The numbers are staggering and support an unusual argument that Blacks may, in fact, be underrepresented in terms of “stops” at 55% compared to their preponderance among those committing crimes (78% of shooting suspects).

I suspect that the first response of those who are uncomfortable with these data is to assert that the NYPD disproportionately arrests Blacks and Hispanics for violent crimes due to the pervasive racism that infected law enforcement agencies for decades. The argument posits that cops in New York target visible minorities for arrest skewing the system of justice and the arrest demographics. 

But that argument loses its cogency in the light of two particular data points. The first is that 74% of all shooting victims in New York in 2012 were Black, hardly a number that could be manufactured by even the most racist of police departments unless they were busy shooting up minority neighborhoods. The likelihood that most of the perpetrators of those all too numerous shootings are also Black is self-evident. Crimes tend to cluster in communities.

An even more compelling counter to the argument that the crime data is skewed by a racist and ossified NYPD is the very demographic change that has transformed the department--- as it has numerous other ones across the country. The historic image of a white, corpulent New York cop oozing hostility is an anachronism.

As of the end of 2012 a majority of the NYPD’s rank and file officers was minority (e.g. Black, Latino or Asian) for the first time ever. While the overall majority of NYPD cops is white (53%), the cops on the beat (those most likely to make “stop, question and frisk” decisions) are majority minority. The likelihood of a majority minority police force systematically selecting minorities to harass on a scale that produces the numbers at play here (i.e. more than double their percentage of the population) strains credulity.

Another uncomfortable fact, one that has little sway in Federal court, is that the process as practiced by the NYPD works! Since it was instituted in the early 1990s, “New York has experienced the longest and steepest crime drop in the modern history of policing. Murders have gone down by nearly 80%, and combined major felonies by nearly 75%.

Also often overlooked in the passionate discussion of “minority profiling” is that the major beneficiaries of the policy and the drop in crime are the residents of the formerly crime plagued areas. “Minorities make up nearly 80% of the drop in homicide victims since the early 1990s. New York policing has transformed inner-city neighborhoods and allowed their hardworking members a once unthinkable freedom from fear.” 

MacDonald correctly warns that the plaintiffs’ success in New York would encourage similar law suits around the country; actions that could undermine the astonishing advances that have been made in law enforcement and crime prevention in big cities over the past two decades.

It would be a shame if in the pursuit of a well-intentioned effort to protect minorities and their rights that they would become the people who are once again consigned to a life of fear, violence and death. That benefits no one.

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