Thinking Through Stop-and-Frisk

by Reihan Salam

Justin Peters of Slate asks why the NYPD didn’t abandon stop-and-frisk a long time ago, while Heather Mac Donald warns that the turn against stop-and-frisk might lead to an increase in violent crime in the New York Post. Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolicy considers the argument that stop-and-frisk is plagued by racial bias:

[I]f police are targeting minorities for stop-and-frisk above and beyond their likelihood of being involved in a crime, we might expect searches of minorities to be less likely to uncover concrete evidence of criminal activity. We do see this to some extent: Whites were carrying weapons 1.9 percent of the time; the number for blacks was 1.1, Hispanics, 1.3. For “contraband other than weapons,” the numbers are 2.3 percent for whites, 1.8 percent for blacks, and 1.7 percent for Hispanics.

However, Mayor Bloomberg has said he’s specifically targeting guns, and on that front the trend runs in the opposite direction: 0.16 percent of stopped blacks were carrying guns, as compared with 0.07 percent of whites and 0.09 percent of Hispanics. And the trend for arrests and summonses is less pronounced, though we should bear in mind that the decision to take these actions is partly subjective.

One question that merits more attention is whether stop-and-frisk has led to a reduction in the share of individuals carrying weapons at any given time. That is, as the practice of stop-and-frisk has taken hold, it could be that people who might have carried weapons in a non-stop-and-frisk world choose not to do so, for fear of apprehension, and that if stop-and-frisk is abandoned, at least some of these people might choose to start carrying weapons again.

Under stop-and-frisk, it could be that New York city has achieved an equilibrium in which a relatively small share of the population is carrying weapons, as people living in relatively high-crime neighborhoods are reassured that others are not carrying weapons, which in turn will dampen the desire to carry a weapon for purposes of self-defense. If the purpose of stop-and-frisk is not to identify individuals carrying weapons but rather to deter individuals from carrying weapons, its pervasiveness and intrusiveness might be a feature, not a bug. The working assumption is not that individuals carrying weapons are bad guys ought to victimize others. Rather, the assumption is that many of the individuals carrying weapons in a non-stop-and-frisk world do so to protect themselves from being victimized. So stop-and-frisk could be seen as a strategy to reassure people that the police are creating a gun-free, or gun-light, environment. The problem, of course, is that many people experience stop-and-frisk as an assault on their dignity, and this shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

P.S. If stop-and-frisk is fundamentally about shifting to a gun-light equilibrium, why won’t stop-and-frisk advocates, like Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, make this argument explicitly? My guess is that it is because an equilibrium-shifting rationale runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment. 

Consider the findings of “I Ain’t Gonna Let No One Disrespect Me,” a study that evaluated Elijah Anderson’s “code-of-the-street” thesis:

The findings do not support Anderson’s theory that following the street code — being aggressive and violent toward anyone who says or does anything that can be perceived as a personal criticism — promotes respectful behavior and deters potential conflict. Instead, the findings suggest that individuals who adopt the street code have higher levels of victimization than would be expected from living in a dangerous and disadvantaged neighborhood. The findings suggest that the development of a reputation for toughness as a means of gaining respect or deterring victimization requires the promotion of conflict and retaliation in order to establish a reputation for toughness; this creates a cycle of violence.

So how might the authorities go about arresting the cycle of violence? Aggressive policing, including stop-and-frisk, can be understood as a tool for undermining the street code. The police are effectively disempowering individuals who might otherwise be aggressive and violent towards those who say or do things that can be perceived as personal criticism. Unfortunately, the police are also potentially disempowering, or embarrassing or angering, many other individuals as well. 

This “epidemiological” case for stop-and-frisk has little to do with the notion that the police should only search you if they have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that a given individual is engaged in wrongdoing. It is going to be hard for stop-and-frisk to avoid legal challenges, and my guess is that it will soon have to be replaced. The question that remains is whether there has been a durable normative shift in high-crime neighborhoods in New York city, i.e., a shift away from a “code-of-the-street” orientation that creates a cycle of violence, or if the end of stop-and-frisk will lead to more aggression and more violent self-defense.

P.P.S. And if you’re looking for scholarly work on stop-and-frisk, check out Dylan Matthews.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.