We have our complaints about Michael Bloomberg, the prissy little autocrat who on occasion treats governing New York City as though it were very little more than a large-scale psychotherapy session for his own neuroses. But as the kerfuffle over the city’s stop-and-frisk program reminds us: We are going to miss him when he is gone.
If a mayor of New York can prevent the city’s backsliding into its pre-Giuliani state of criminal chaos, he can call himself successful. After crime prevention, everything else is a distant second for any big-city mayor, as Rahm Emanuel is learning the hard way in Chicago. There are many factors supporting New York’s success in tamping down crime, and stop-and-frisk is one of them.
The program is controversial because most of those who are stopped and frisked are black or Latino. That is less surprising than it may sound: Most New Yorkers are black or Latino. Critics of stop-and-frisk allege that the program is racially biased because blacks and Latinos are stopped and frisked at rates disproportionate to their share of the population. In fact, they constitute 87 percent of the stop-and-frisk targets. It is not surprising that blacks and Latinos are stopped and frisked at rates higher than would be expected if the program were being randomly administered across the entire population — because the program is not random. It is applied most robustly in high-crime areas, which tend to be disproportionately black and Latino. It is applied in response to specific information, such as witness testimony. Noting that, Mayor Bloomberg argued that the stop-and-frisk program might be stopping blacks and Latinos too infrequently: More than 90 percent of those being sought in New York City murder cases are described as being black or Latino.
Which is to say, stop-and-frisk is used to help prevent crime in largely black and Latino neighborhoods, where largely black and Latino witnesses describe largely black and Latino suspects perpetrating crimes against largely black and Latino victims in a largely black and Latino city. For acknowledging this reality and defending an essential tool in the city’s anticrime toolbox, Bloomberg has been ritually denounced — mostly by Democrats hoping to replace him. Public advocate Bill de Blasio called the remarks “outrageous,” while Bill Thompson called them “incredibly insulting.” Christine Quinn, a city councilwoman and one of the leading candidates to become the next mayor, said that the program must be gutted “precisely because young men of color are disproportionately stopped in New York.”
There is little or no evidence that the New York Police Department has been anything other than professional and well intentioned in its execution of stop-and-frisk, and there is ample evidence that this and other measures have made a real impact on crime in the city. We have become accustomed to choking a little on the words “Mayor Bloomberg is right,” but right is what he is on this question. Keeping a leash on crime in New York is a difficult and thankless job, and doing it well requires a relentless commitment to clear-headed policy over popular platitudes. The results of second- and third-rate city governance can be seen from Philadelphia to Detroit to Los Angeles, if parochial New Yorkers had the inclination to understand life west of the Hudson. The future of the nation’s largest city simply cannot be entrusted to those who value identity politics over law enforcement. Unhappily, the menu of credible candidates to continue the necessary work begun by Mayor Giuliani presents slim pickings for the city. If the last testament of Bloombergism is a Central Park that you can’t smoke in but may walk through without fearing for your life, that is not the worst possible outcome. Within living memory, New York City had more than 2,200 murders a year, and vast stretches of the city were unlivable. If the mayor’s critics have their way, sugar and salt are going to be the least of New York’s worries.