Politics & Policy

We Were Wrong about Stop-and-Frisk

(Reuters file photo: Chip East)
Crime in New York City fell even as the policing tactic was abandoned.

Like many conservatives, I had grave concerns about curtailing the New York City police department’s controversial tactic of stopping and frisking potential suspects for weapons. I was inclined to defer to the police when they protested that they needed the option to stop, question, and frisk New Yorkers on a mere reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing instead of probable cause that the targeted person had committed a crime. Restricting the tactic, I thought, would cause an uptick, maybe even a spike, in crime rates. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made ending stop-and-frisk the centerpiece of his successful 2013 campaign for mayor, struck me as a man who was cynically willing to tolerate an increase in crime if he thought it to his political advantage to amplify leftist voters’ core belief that policing was out of control.

Today in New York City, use of stop-and-frisk, which the department justified via the 1968 Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court ruling, has crashed. Yet the statistics are clear: Crime is lower than ever. It’s possible that crime would be even lower had stop-and-frisk been retained, but that’s moving the goalposts. I and others argued that crime would rise. Instead, it fell. We were wrong.

Major crime in New York City has continued to decline almost across the board in the four years of the de Blasio administration, to the lowest rates since New York City began keeping extensive records on crime in the early 1960s. Crime is literally off the charts — the low end of the charts. To compare today’s crime rate to even that of ten years ago is to observe a breathtaking decline.

New York City saw a record-low 333 homicides in 2014, the first year of the de Blasio administration. Though that figure was slightly higher in 2015 and 2016 (352 and 335), four of the five least-murderous years in New York City since 1960 have been in the de Blasio era. Other crime statistics have largely followed suit, with the total number of major crimes down in 2017 by about 6 percent since 2016, which was itself a record-low year.

As of December 27, New York City saw 286 homicides in 2017, down 12 percent from the previous year, itself a near-record low. That is a rate of about 3 per 100,000 population. By contrast, Chicago’s homicide rate for 2017 was about 24 per 100,000. The figure for Baltimore is about 56. There were more murder victims in Baltimore than in New York City in 2017, even though New York has nearly 14 times as many residents.

Stop-and-frisk was deployed in New York City some 686,000 times at the peak in 2011, dropped sharply in 2012–2013, the last couple of years of the Mike Bloomberg administration, and plummeted to 12,000 incidents in 2016, according to NYPD data tracked by the New York Civil Liberties Union. That’s about a 98 percent reduction in use of the tactic.

De Blasio is not the primary reason for this reversal; the courts appeared to be on their way to killing stop-and-frisk on Fourth Amendment grounds before he even took office as civil-liberties advocates built a case that the “reasonable suspicion” standard seemed to have devolved into “a hunch is good enough.” So it seems likely that the sharp declines that began under Bloomberg would have continued if Bloomberg had remained in office. Nevertheless, de Blasio was correct in saying the city could withstand a sharp decrease in stop-and-frisk. And he was right to draw attention to the social cost of the practice; more than 80 percent of those subjected to stop-and-frisk since the start of the Bloomberg administration were, according to the NYPD, completely innocent. That means hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were unjustly subjected to embarrassment or even humiliation. 

It’s possible there is some number-fudging going on with the crime statistics, but so far there is only scattered anecdotal evidence of that. And any serious effort to charge today’s cops with distorting the numbers would have to consider whether yesterday’s cops did the same. Moreover, if anything, the de Blasio-era police have been more antagonistic to the mayor than in any previous administration, taking such unprecedented steps as turning their backs to him en masse at a funeral and, at the nadir three years ago, launching a major slowdown in arrests and writing tickets. Police seem disinclined to do de Blasio any favors by giving him favorable crime statistics to brag about.

New York City’s mayor is a contemptible human being who marched in a parade headed by a terrorist, flouted the law in failing to turn over unused school space for high-quality charters that serve as a lifeline out of the slums, and did favors for campaign fundraisers. But as de Blasio begins his second and final term as mayor, having been sworn in by the country’s sole high-ranking socialist, Bernie Sanders, he’s entitled to an I-told-you-so moment on the issue that swept him into office.


Don’t Take the Wrong Lessons from NYC’s Murder Drop

Stop & Frisk Policing Is Good Gun Control

Stop-and-Frisk Is Fair

— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.

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