The Wall Street Journal reported today that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has stepped up his defense of the city’s police department and its stop-question-and-frisk procedure, responding to critics who call the tactic biased against blacks and other racial minorities. On Sunday Bloomberg reiterated his point, originally made during his weekly radio address last Friday, that the proportion of stops of black subjects is lower than the proportion of violent crime suspects who are black — and that the reverse is true of whites: “The numbers are the numbers, and the numbers clearly show that the stops are generally disproportionate with suspects’ descriptions; and for years now, critics have been trying to argue that minorities are stopped disproportionately. If you look at the crime numbers, that is just not true. The numbers don’t lie.”
Over the weekend, the mayor faced criticism from several of the Democratic candidates vying to replace him. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said on Sunday, “Suggesting we could have more stops of blacks and Latinos is a slap in the face.” Another candidate, disgraced ex-U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, said of the mayor’s original comment that “It just shows that the mayor doesn’t quite understand, and he needs to try to show some understanding to the people who have these legitimate complaints.” Bloomberg responded sarcastically, “I understand that we’re in a campaign season and everybody wants to do something for their campaign, rather than help us get out of this terrible situation where a disproportionate percentage of the crime is committed by a group of young kids that just don’t have any future.”
Bloomberg also displayed little patience for MSNBC talk-show host Al Sharpton, who delivered an angry speech on Saturday in which he declared, “The tone that has been set by that remark not only polarizes the city, it gives a false sense to police that they can step over the line.” On Sunday the mayor fired back, saying that Sharpton was not focused on “helping the kids in this city.” Bloomberg added, “It’s sad he got away from that, became a television star and doesn’t seem to focus on the kids who just don’t have the education that they need to compete and don’t have a structured family at home that can help.”
At the heart of the controversy surrounding stop-question-and-frisk is the question of whether the discretion it affords to the police has been used to deliberately target black and other minority residents. Under the procedure, a beat cop can stop and question any person on the basis of reasonable suspicion, and can then frisk the person for weapons if he feels threatened. Beginning in 2008, the New York City Police Department has published annual reports on the breakdown of crime statistics by race. The annual averages of these figures indicate that whites do, indeed, comprise a higher percentage of police stops than of violent-crime suspects — as do Hispanics, American Indians, Asians, and Pacific Islanders. For example, on average 9.76% of police stops each year were of white subjects, but only 5.56% of violent-crime suspects were described as white by their victims. Likewise, Asians and Pacific Islanders comprised only 2.04% of violent-crime suspects in an average year, yet they comprised 3.28% of stop subjects. In fact, the only racial group whose percentage of stops was lower than its percentage of reported violent crime — in every individual year, as well as on average — was blacks. Blacks made up an average of 66.44% of violent-crime suspects each year, but they comprised only 54.14% of stop subjects.
At first glance, the mayor’s argument — essentially, that the police stop blacks more often because blacks commit more crimes — is not the only hypothesis consistent with the NYPD data. For instance, if a racist police force systematically targets blacks for investigation and arrest, then they are more likely to come up with higher crime statistics for blacks than for other groups that are not similarly targeted. Yet the statistic for violent-crime suspects in the annual report comes not from the officers themselves but from the victims of violent crimes (defined as murder, rape, robbery, and felonious assault). For the charge of unfair racial targeting to be accurate, then, requires one of three things: (a) The average victim of violent crime in New York is racist — so racist, in fact, that he deliberately mischaracterizes his attacker as black in criminal complaint reports, thereby reducing the chance that the actual, nonblack perpetrator will caught; (b) the New York Police Department systematically falsifies victims’ accounts; or (c) despite the fact that black residents commit a large majority of crimes, any practice that has a racially uneven result — the fashionable term is “disparate impact,” popularized by ethically challenged Obama Labor nominee Thomas Perez — is reprehensible and must be discarded.
We can reject the first scenario as patently absurd (not to mention beyond the pale for mayoral candidates who are, at least in theory, attempting to win the support of the public rather than tar the entire public as racist and dishonest). The second requires a near-epidemic level of dishonesty among the police force, in a form which would not only be easily detectable but also require a much more forceful response than simply eliminating a single controversial policy. Nobody — at least not yet — has suggested that NYPD cops falsify victims’ complaints.
The third possibility, which consists of a moral judgment rather than an empirical statement, is the most nonsensical of the three; yet it reaches closest to the sentiments expressed by fashionable Manhattan progressives, few of whom must deal with the rates of violent crime that afflict minority neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. In the absence of racist intent, how can a policy designed to keep New Yorkers safe be judged anywise other than by its costs and benefits? That the policy invites the possibility of racism is not enough; that is equivalent to saying that it invites the possibility of abuse, which is a defining trait of even the most legitimate coercive power. If de Blasio, Weiner, and others wish to abolish stop-question-and-frisk on that basis, perhaps they should simply move to abolish the police department.