Stop and Frisk NYC: Ray Kelly Wrong to Defend It

Even as the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy has become increasingly legally embattled and publicly unpopular, the NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and others have continued to defend it against charges of racism and constitutionality. Stop-and-frisk proponents do this because they don't believe that the policy is racist, and they do believe that it lowers crime. Are they right?

Most people, Kelly included, agree that the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy disproportionately impacts minority communities. Under the policy, NYPD deploys officers to "high crime communities" (code for minority communities) who stop people if they have a "reasonable suspicion" they are committing or about to commit a crime (code for "walking while black or Hispanic" — no, really). If the officer suspects the person may be carrying a weapon, they "frisk" them.

The data supports the contention that this policy targets minority communities. This has been well documented elsewhere, particularly by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU took a look at NYPD data on stop-and-frisk and found that from 2002-2011, nearly 90% of those stopped were black or Latino (spoiler: NYC residents are not 90% black or Latino).

Prominent defenders of the stop-and-frisk policy, including NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather Mac Donald, agree that the policy disproportionately impacts minorities, but not that it is racist.

According to Mac Donald: "The police don't make deployments based on population or race. They make deployments based on crime." In her article, "It’s About Crime, Not Race," Mac Donald says that minority neighborhoods have higher crime rates, as do minorities in general, and therefore it makes sense that minorities would be more impacted by the policy.

Both Kelly and Mac Donald argue that the stop-and-frisk policy in fact benefits communities of color because it helps take guns and criminals off the streets in those communities. According to Kelly, "We’re saving lives. Mostly young men of color."

Mac Donald admits that the policy is flawed, but ultimately concurs with Kelly: "To be sure, thousands of innocent New Yorkers have been questioned by the police. Even though such stops may have been justified given the information the officer had at the time, they’re still humiliating and infuriating experiences. But if the trade-off is an increased risk of getting stopped in a high-crime neighborhood versus an increased risk of getting shot there, most people would choose the former."

Basically, according to Mac Donald, even if the policy is problematic, it’s okay because it stops crime.

Now while pointing stop-and-frisk proponents to Yo, Is This Racist? might be cathartic for you, it probably won’t change their minds. To Mac Donald and Kelly, security is paramount. They need to be convinced not that stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional or discriminatory, but that it’s not particularly effective at stopping crime.

So what’s the data about stop-and-frisk and crime prevention?

For starters, nearly 90% of those stopped are "totally innocent." That’s a pretty low batting average for such a widely used practice.

To figure out whether NYPD was actually targeting the right communities, New York public radio station WNYC "located all the 'hot spots' where stop and frisks are concentrated in the city, and found that most guns were recovered on people outside those hot spots — meaning police aren't finding guns where they're looking the hardest." Here’s WNYC’s map showing the discrepancy between the places where the most frisks occur and where guns are recovered:

Ray Kelly usually cites the drop in murder rates since the policy was implemented ten years ago, but as numerous commentators have pointed out, murder rates have also dropped nationally. From what I can tell, there is no study correlating stop-and-frisk and reduced crime rates in New York (feel free to correct me in the comments, by the way).

In addition, stop-and-frisk hurts crime prevention by degrading police-community relations. When police legitimacy is low, citizens do not feel comfortable reporting crime or cooperating with the police.

In the ongoing Center for Constitutional Rights class-action case challenging stop-and-frisk, the policy may or may not be found constitutional. But it’s clear that it’s caused a major legitimacy problem for the NYPD among the very communities that they want to make safer. The rising criticism of the policy’s effectiveness, including from mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn, shows that the NYPD will need to reform stop-and-frisk sooner rather than later.