The New York City Police Department’s use of the practice of stopping hundreds of thousands of law-abiding New Yorkers for street-side searches has been unprecedented in recent years. The New York Civil Liberties Union released a report documenting in detail the 685,724 police stops in 2011, the largest number ever—and an increase of 14 percent from 2010. It points to an unfortunate and persistent pattern of racial profiling of minorities by law enforcement. Blacks and Latinos in New York City, usually young men, are presumed guilty of criminal activity because of the color of their skin, the neighborhoods they live in, and even the clothes they wear.
Recently, Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Federal District Court ruled that Floyd. v. New York, a case alleging racial bias by police officers in the practice of stopping and frisking New Yorkers, would be certified as a class-action suit. The legal case was originally filed on behalf of four young men in 2008 by the Center for Constitutional Rights (an Open Society Foundations grantee). The impact of the ruling has substantial implications not only for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers stopped and frisked every year by the New York Police Department, but for all New Yorkers.
First, a bit of historical context is in order. In 1999, New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer released a report confirming that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices disproportionately targeted minority communities. In the same year, CCR filed a class action law suit, Daniels, et al. v. the City of New York, against the Department and the City for conducting stops-and-frisks without reasonable suspicion in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of Fourteenth Amendment by targeting citizens based upon their race and national origin. The suit led to a consent decree. After noncompliance and an actual increase in the use of stops and frisks, CCR filed Floyd, et al. v. The City of New York.
Although the Department asserts that the practice of stop-and-frisk “saves minority lives,” and is responsible for the crime decline in New York, there is no conclusive evidence to support these claims. In a recent editorial, City Council Member Jumaane Williams takes Police Commissioner Kelly to task for distorting the facts. Williams points out that the dramatic decline in gun violence in New York City occurred between 1990-91 and 2000-2001, before the huge increase in the use to stop-and-frisk. In fact, the rate of gun seizures resulting from stop-and-frisk is nearly zero—0.15 out of a hundred stops—a disturbingly low return for a law enforcement tactic which the NYPD itself claims is designed specifically to remove illegal guns from the streets. While stops have increased by 524,873 since 2003, officers have found only 176 additional guns per year, according to NYCLU.
Additionally, both Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly have repeatedly stated that the use of stop-and-frisk has saved 5,600 minority lives. Their analysis seems to be based upon murky social science, at best. According to the NYPD, the 5,600 minority lives saves refers to 5,600 fewer murders in the past decade and the one before. What the NYPD doesn’t make clear is the large decrease in murders occurred before the huge jump in the use of stop-and-frisk. A recent article in Forbes magazine presents compelling graphs which make it clear that the significant decrease in the number of murders in New York City occurred before the huge increase in stop-and-frisk. An analysis of homicide rates this year by WNYC also demonstrates that in the 13 precincts where homicides have increased, stop-and-frisk did not lead to lower homicide rates. Stop rates actually increased in six of the precincts with an increase in homicide rates.
There is no conclusive evidence directly linking NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices to the City’s historic crime decline. Criminologists suggest that much of the academic research analyzing the City’s historic crime decline has methodological flaws or omissions. For example, prior research does not include controls for other contributing factors; omits comparisons to other cities; does not take into account falling homicide rates before stop-and-frisk practices were initiated on a large scale; does not account for a reversion to the mean from high levels of homicide during the city’s crack-cocaine epidemic during the mid-to-late 1980s; and uses an aggregate violent crime index which limits comparisons across crime types and has substantial measurement error. Moreover, criminologist Frank Zimring indicates that it is difficult to know with certainty the impact of NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices on the crime decline in New York City because the Department implemented numerous policing efforts during the same period.
Other proponents of stop-and-frisk argue that the high level of stops in minority communities is justified because crime is high in those areas. These proponents fail to mention that crime rates do not determine who is stopped. Race – not crime - is the main factor in determining who police stop in New York City. According to statistical analysis by Jeff Fagan, expert witness in the Floyd case, blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be stopped than whites even areas with low crime rates, where populations are mixed or are mostly white. Overall, most police stops occur in black and Latino neighborhoods even after adjustments for other factors such as crime rates, social conditions and allocation of police resources in those neighborhoods.
This analysis is revealing. New York can do better. Policing should be based upon strategies that are actually proven to make communities safer, engage citizens, and uphold fundamental protections guaranteed by our constitution.