U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin has ruled that New York City’s so-called stop-and-frisk approach to crimefighting is unconstitutional, a form of “indirect racial profiling.” Judge Scheindlin bases this in part on the fact that blacks and Hispanics, who form the majority of New York City’s population, are stopped at rates higher than their share of the general population. If the NYPD were applying stop-and-frisk in a random, race-blind fashion, then one would expect more whites and Asians to be stopped, and fewer blacks and Hispanics. But of course the NYPD is not applying stop-and-frisk in a random or race-blind fashion: The measure is applied more commonly in high-crime areas, which tend to be more heavily black and Hispanic, and it takes into account crime victims’ descriptions of their assailants.
That latter practice is what really is at issue here. Blacks and Hispanics make up 87 percent of stop-and-frisk targets, which is in fact lower than the share of crime suspects who are black and Hispanic, and significantly lower than the share of violent-crime suspects who are black and Hispanic. Heather Mac Donald points to the case of the high-crime neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where 93 percent of criminal suspects are black or Hispanic and 99 percent of violent-crime suspects are black and Hispanic. More than 90 percent of those being sought in New York City murder cases are black or Hispanic. Police officers incorporating victim reports into their policing practices are in the great majority of cases looking for black and Hispanic suspects. They are also looking mostly for young men — so far, nobody has suggested that 50 percent of stop-and-frisk targets be female.
The caricature of stop-and-frisk has NYPD officers randomly scooping up young black and Hispanic men based on nothing more than their race and turning their pockets out in the hopes of finding something incriminating. Two points must be kept in mind: One, the police are looking for suspects in reported crimes and working from victim descriptions. Two, there is something that comes between the stop and the frisk — namely, questioning. If a police officer sees behavior that he believes is suspicious, he may initiate a conversation with the target, especially if that target fits the description of a suspect in a criminal investigation. If, after questioning, the officer believes that he has probable cause to frisk, he may do so. That is a long way from randomly hassling every non-white person within eyesight of a police officer.
There are many reasons that young black and Hispanic men are disproportionately represented among New York City’s crime suspects and criminals. But the NYPD is not planting memories in the heads of crime victims. It is possible that the standards for conducting stops are too loose, but there is no standard that takes into account reality that will not see blacks and Hispanics stopped at rates disproportionate to their share of the population. Judge Scheindlin can declare reality unconstitutional, but that does not change the facts of the case.
New York City has, through intelligent police work and heroic effort, reversed what seemed 20 years ago to be an inescapable descent into lawlessness, indecency, and chaos. For all its troubles, the NYPD is the best-managed big-city police department in the country, and there is little in Judge Scheindlin’s ruling to justify putting it under minders appointed by the same liberal establishment that allowed the city to fall into disorder in the first place. We have our complaints about Mayor Bloomberg, but he is right to back this policy, and he is right to appeal Judge Scheindlin’s ruling, as he has promised to do.