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The New York Times

 

Fighting Crime Where the Criminals Are

June 26, 2010

By Heather Mac Donald

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THERE was a predictable chorus of criticism from civil rights groups last month when the New York Police Department released its data on stop-and-frisk interactions for 2009. The department made 575,000 pedestrian stops last year. Fifty-five percent involved blacks, even though blacks are only 23 percent of the city’s population. Whites, by contrast, were involved in 10 percent of all stops, though they make up 35 percent of the city’s population.

According to the department’s critics, that imbalance in stop rates results from officers’ racial bias. The use of these stops, they say, should be sharply curtailed, if not eliminated entirely, and some activists are suing the department to achieve that end.

Allegations of racial bias, however, ignore the most important factor governing the Police Department’s operations: crime. Trends in criminal acts, not census data, drive everything that the department does, thanks to the statistics-based managerial revolution known as CompStat. Given the patterns of crime in New York, it is inevitable that stop rates will not mirror the city’s ethnic and racial breakdown.

CompStat embodies the iconoclastic idea that the police can stop violence before it happens. The department analyzes victim reports daily, and deploys additional manpower to the places where crime is increasing. Once at a crime hot spot, officers are expected to look out for, and respond to, suspicious behavior.

Such stops happen more frequently in minority neighborhoods because that is where the vast majority of violent crime occurs � and thus where police presence is most intense. Based on reports filed by victims, blacks committed 66 percent of all violent crime in New York in 2009, including 80 percent of shootings and 71 percent of robberies. Blacks and Hispanics together accounted for 98 percent of reported gun assaults. And the vast majority of the victims of violent crime were also members of minority groups.

Non-Hispanic whites, on the other hand, committed 5 percent of the city’s violent crimes in 2009, 1.4 percent of all shootings and less than 5 percent of all robberies.

Given these facts, the Police Department cannot direct its resources where they are most needed without generating racially disproportionate stop data, even though the department’s tactics themselves are colorblind. The per capita rate of shootings in the 73rd Precinct � which covers Brooklyn’s largely black Ocean Hill and Brownsville neighborhoods � is 81 times higher than in the 68th Precinct in largely white Bay Ridge. Not surprisingly, the per capita stop rate in the 73rd Precinct is 15 times higher than that in the 68th.

Crime rates are not the only thing that drives police strategy � so do requests for assistance from communities besieged by lawlessness. If residents of an apartment building ask their precinct commander to eliminate the drug dealing on their street, officers will likely question people hanging out around the building and step up their enforcement of quality-of-life laws, resulting in more stops. Requests for crackdowns on street sales come far more frequently from minority neighborhoods, because that is where most open-air drug dealing occurs.

Some critics charge that the more than half a million stops last year indicate that the department is out of control. But the ratios of stops to population and of stops to total arrests in New York are very close to those in Los Angeles, where last summer a judge lifted a federal consent decree under which the police department had operated for the last eight years. The police stop data in Los Angeles are as racially disproportionate as New York’s, yet the judge deemed them consistent with civil rights.

For several years, the ratio of stops in New York that resulted in an arrest or summons � about 12 percent of the total � was identical for whites, blacks and Hispanics, suggesting that the police use the same measure of reasonable suspicion in stopping members of different racial and ethnic groups. Just because a stop does not result in an arrest or summons does not mean that it did not interrupt a crime. Someone who is casing a victim or acting as a lookout may not have inculpatory evidence on him on which to base an arrest.

No public policy change of the last quarter-century has done as much for the city’s poor and minority neighborhoods as CompStat policing. More than 10,000 black and Hispanic males are alive today who would have been killed had homicide rates remained at the levels of the early 1990s.

Most minority-group members in the city recognize the enormous benefit from CompStat policing. A poll released last month by Quinnipiac University found that 68 percent of black respondents approve of the job Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly is doing, suggesting that the city’s civil rights activists do not speak for their purported beneficiaries on this issue.

The attack on the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk data is based on the false premise that police activity should mirror census data, not crime. If the critics get their way, it would strip police protection from the New Yorkers who need it most.

Original Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/26/opinion/26macdonald.html?_r=1

 

 
 
 

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