In March 2019, Mike Bloomberg said he would not run for president because he was not willing to engage in an “apology tour.” By contrast, scoffed the former New York mayor, Joe Biden had “apologized for the one piece of legislation which is actually a pretty good anti-crime bill,” as well as for being “white, male, and over 50,” in Bloomberg’s words.
Perhaps Bloomberg owes the former vice president an apology. Bloomberg kicked off his own presidential campaign last November with an equally gratuitous mea culpa, repudiating his support as mayor for the police tactic of stop, question and frisk. “I got something important really wrong,” he said at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. “I didn’t understand that back then, the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities.”
Bloomberg had it right the first time around. Proactive police stops are among the most effective crime-fighting tools that cops on the beat have. The New York Police Department’s use of the tactic helped bring the city’s homicide rate down another 50 percent during Bloomberg’s tenure in office from 2002 to 2013, something few criminologists believed possible. Sixteen hundred minority lives were saved in the process.
An opposing narrative, however, has taken over the public discourse about stop, question and frisk. That narrative is based on three propositions, all of them false.
Proposition number one: Stop, question and frisk is unconstitutional. To the contrary, in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court affirmed an officer’s power to briefly detain an individual for questioning if the officer reasonably suspects that the individual is involved in criminal activity. If the officer believes that the suspect may be armed, he may pat that individual down for a weapon. In New York City, about half of police stops entail a pat-down (or frisk).
The claim that stop, question and frisk is unconstitutional rests on a 2013 decision by New York federal district court judge Shira Scheindlin. Scheindlin held that the NYPD’s practice of the tactic was unlawful, the product of a novel concept – "indirect racial profiling” – that Scheindlin made up for her opinion. So eager was Scheindlin to rule against the NYPD that she improperly steered a trilogy of cases challenging proactive stops to her courtroom. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently removed her from the case because of that improper conduct; the circuit court then stayed her opinion while the city appealed. New York would in all likelihood have won its appeal: Scheindlin had excluded key evidence, such as rates of criminal offending and a Rand Corporation report finding that the NYPD did not engage in racial profiling, and had relied on a statistical model of policing that bore little relationship to the NYPD’s data-driven approach.
Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped the city’s appeal of Scheindlin’s decision when he took office in 2014, and her decision stayed on the books. Terry v. Ohio, however, remains good law; proactive stops are a constitutional tactic, though one that, like all police powers, can be abused in individual instances.
Proposition number two: Stop, question and frisk does not lower crime. Expert opinion holds the contrary. A 2018 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that stops targeting crime hot spots lower violence. In 2015 George Mason criminologist David Weisburd found that the NYPD’s use of the tactic had deterred crime. Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, has argued that proactive stops are the “most important thing police can do to reduce crime.”
“Stop” opponents reject that consensus because in New York City, after 2011, crime continued falling while the number of stops conducted by the NYPD did, too — precipitously. New York’s experience, however, is sui generis. The degree of gentrification in formerly high-crime neighborhoods is unparalleled. As the NYPD brought crime down to near-record levels, a virtuous cycle set in: Stable, intact families moved into areas that were previously dominated by gangs. Commerce and pedestrian traffic picked up, further lowering crime. Now those informal social controls are keeping crime down without the need for police intervention, as a top official in the department confirmed off the record.
Proposition number three: Terry stops are racially discriminatory. “Stop” critics point to the fact that in New York, for example, blacks make up a little over half of all stop subjects, even though blacks are 23 percent of the city’s population. Ergo, the NYPD is singling out individuals for stops based on their race.
The relevant benchmark for assessing police activity is not population data, however, but the incidence of crime. NYPD policing is data-driven; commanders make deployment decisions based on minute-by-minute information about where people are being victimized. And that victimization data send New York officers disproportionately to minority neighborhoods, because that is where most violent street crime occurs. In 2018, 73.3 percent of shooting victims were black; 22.4 percent of shooting victims were Hispanic. Their assailants were also disproportionately minority: Blacks were 72.6 percent of all shooting suspects in 2018, according to the victims of and witnesses to those shootings. Add Hispanic to black shootings and you accounted for 96.7 percent of all shootings in New York in 2018. Whites made up 2.8 percent of shooting suspects in 2018, according to victims and witnesses, even though they are 34 percent of the city’s population.
Such offending and victimization data mean that almost every time the police get a “shots fired” call over the radio, they are sent to a minority neighborhood on behalf of a minority victim in search of a minority suspect. The cops don’t wish for this disparity; it is forced on them by the reality of crime. But it means that they cannot respond to criminal offending without producing disparate stop and arrest data.
Black New York voters, in a 2013 Quinnipiac poll, gave NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, then in his twelfth year as Bloomberg’s police chief and the public face of the NYPD’s “stop” policy, a 63 percent approval rating. The NYPD itself received its highest approval rating since 2002 – 70 percent – among all voters, including 56 percent approval from black voters. In 2017, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill received a 55 percent approval rating among black voters, after documented stops had dropped 95 percent from their 2011 high. Such polling numbers do not support the narrative that the NYPD’s stop policies had eroded, as Bloomberg put it in his apology, “what we had worked so hard to build: . . . Trust between police and communities.”
While the NYPD’s previous “stop” practices were not unlawful, there were undoubtedly stops that should have been conducted with greater courtesy and respect. But New York’s proactive policing has saved thousands of minority lives since the 1990s, which Bloomberg once boasted about. It allowed civic life to flourish in once drug-infested communities. That is nothing to apologize for.
This piece originally appeared on The Hill
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion. Follow her on Twitter here.
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