Politics & Policy

The Complicated Legacy of Bloomberg’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy

Demonstrators march during a protest in New York June 17, 2012. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
The truth is less clear-cut than critics or defenders admit.

Although Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has expressed regret for the stop-and-frisk policy he initiated while mayor of New York City, his apology hasn’t been accepted, at least not by the Left. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow says that Stop, Question, and Frisk (SQF), as the NYPD called it, was racist and unpardonable. For good measure, this being the age of hyperbole, he claims that the policy “amounted to a police occupation of minority neighborhoods, a terroristic pressure campaign.”

As usual, the reality is more complex than such dogmatists acknowledge. First, the policy was a well-intentioned effort to rationally address the major law-enforcement problem of the modern era: high violent-crime rates in the poor, minority-heavy neighborhoods of big cities. The response was rational because it aimed to prevent gun violence by, as Bloomberg put it in 2012, making it “too hot to carry.” And flooding poor black neighborhoods with police also made sense since, as Bloomberg pointed out in his much-decried comments at the Aspen Institute in 2015, that’s where the crime is. It’s sad, but it’s true.

Consider some New York City crime figures from the post-SQF era, after a federal judge had shut the policy down and Bloomberg had left office. In 2017, when they were 22 percent of New York’s population, African Americans were nearly three-quarters of the shooting victims, 56 percent of the murder victims, and 65 percent of the arrests for illegal guns, according to an annual report from the NYPD.

Such extreme disproportionalities were the norm in the pre-SQF era, and Bloomberg’s critics have yet to offer an alternative method of solving the problem. Although non-law-enforcement interventions in minority communities might be effective — Thomas Abt in Bleeding Out offers the latest proposals in this vein — every sensible remedy (including Abt’s) invariably includes increased police deployments. Stop, Question, and Frisk was no exception; it provided for deployments to “hot spots,” small areas with high violent-crime rates.

The question, of course, is what happens after the deployments. In the case of SQF, the police aggressively stopped suspicious persons — mainly young minority males — in the targeted areas, questioned them, and then sometimes frisked them for weapons. This went on for eight years, from 2004 to 2012, a period covering most of Bloomberg’s mayoralty.

We know about the opposition, the lawsuits, and the eventual cessation of SQF as Bloomberg’s term ended. But what about the policy’s effectiveness? Here’s where the critics have a good point. My research has found that crime was falling before SQF was implemented and that the decline continued but did not accelerate afterward. From 2004 to 2012, complaints involving seven major felonies declined by 21.5 percent citywide. In the years just prior, 2000 to 2003, when the volume of stops was much lower, the crime fall was nearly the same: 20.4 percent, according to data provided to me by the NYPD.

What about guns? Didn’t SQF take thousands of firearms off the streets? The answer is “yes,” but gun crimes did not diminish as a result. From 2003 to 2013, the NYPD seized 7,672 guns in 4,984,393 stops. Gun seizures averaged 698 per year. In statistical terms, there was a strong positive correlation between the number of stops and the number of guns confiscated. In plain English, more stops meant more guns seized.

That’s the good news. Here’s the not-so-good: The best sign of success for SQF would have been a decrease in gun crimes. If the policy deterred carrying, one would think the proportion of murders and robberies carried out with guns should have diminished whether or not murders and robberies themselves declined. Yet both the percentage of murders with weapons (including guns) and the percentage of robberies with firearms rose during the peak years of SQF. Had the policy deterred carrying, we would have seen the opposite effect: fewer such crimes as stops increased. It is possible that the causal arrow ran in the other direction and that the NYPD increased the number of SQF stops in response to concerns about rising gun-crime rates. On the one hand, this seems unlikely, because gun-crime rates were falling in New York City, not rising. On the other hand, the citywide decline may have masked crime increases in the hot spots to which the police department was responding.

To check this last issue, I looked at the percentage of crimes with guns in Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct, which had the most stops of any precinct in the city and was second in the number of serious felonies. The percentage of robberies with guns rose during seven of the peak SQF years, and statistically there was a robust positive correlation between SQF stops and gun robberies as a percentage of all robberies. In short, as stops rose or fell, so did the percentage of robberies with guns, an outcome that tracked the citywide pattern. This strong positive relationship — as opposed to the hoped-for inverse relationship in which more stops correlated with fewer robberies with guns — undercuts claims that SQF deterred gun crimes in the 75th Precinct.

So SQF took thousands of guns off the streets but, anomalously, didn’t reduce gun crimes — or, to be more precise, didn’t accelerate their already-in-progress decline. Given the fierce opposition and bitterness the policy generated, there’s a strong argument to be made that it wasn’t worth it.

Should Bloomberg have apologized for SQF? That’s a political question. What we can say is that there is no evidence it was intended to discriminate against African Americans, and plenty of evidence that it was a rational, if unsuccessful, effort to help the people of color who made up a disturbingly disproportionate percentage of violent-crime victims.

Barry Latzer is an emeritus professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. His most recent book is The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America. His history of violent crime pre-1940, The Roots of Violent Crime in America: From the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, will be published in 2021.

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