‘Big question’: What do Bloomberg and Kelly’s crime-fighting achievements say about stop-and-frisk?

Michael Bloomberg and Ray Kelly. ()
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At a City Hall press conference on Dec. 28, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Police Department commissioner Ray Kelly touted the year-end crime figures for 2011. It was the tenth consecutive year in New York City with fewer than 600 murders registered, the numbers showed, and overall, local crime rates remained at record lows.

Standing at a podium and glancing occasionally at prepared notes, Kelly took a moment to put his department's accomplishments in context, citing the work of noted criminologist Frank Zimring.

"He says the reduction in crime in New York City is a Guinness Book of [World] Records reduction not seen anywhere in the developed world," Kelly said.

In 1990, the city had the third-highest murder rate among big cities in America. Today, Kelly said, "we're at the bottom of that list."

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The primary beneficiaries of the lowered crime rate, Kelly said, were the city's poorest residents.

"Crime reductions are most significant in the poorest neighborhoods of the city," he said. "There have been thousands of lives saved, and most are in the poor neighborhoods of our city."

During the question-and-answer portion of the press conference, I asked Kelly about the role of the department's established-but-controversial stop-and-frisk tactic in keeping crime low.

The police department generally has avoided any political debate about the constitutionality of proactive and aggressive policing, even when it targets mostly poor and minority males, and the vast majority of those targets turn out to be innocent. The city's official response to criticism has simply been to argue that their tactics are justified by the results.

During a spate of criticism last year over stop-and-frisk, Kelly told reporters, "It saves lives."

Kelly's answer yesterday to the question about stop-and-frisk was a mild variation on that, but just as affirmative.

"I think if you look at all of our strategies, if you look at Operation Impact, if you look at the real-time crime center, look at our use of technology, look at our policy of engagement, it all works," Kelly said. "You don't have a reduction in crime with 6,000 fewer police officers unless you're proactive."

The successes of the Kelly-Bloomberg-era police department in keeping crime low are inarguable, and remarkable: They have made the fact that anyone ever worried about what would happen to the city after Rudolph Giuliani seem quaint in retrospect, and even a little ridiculous.

But the question of what role stop-and-frisk played in that achievement, according to policing-policy experts—including the one cited by Kelly—is considerably more complicated than it is officially made out to be.

Putting aside the question of whether a policy that protects the city's poorest residents by targeting large numbers of those residents for aggressive handling is morally correct, the science (such as it is) on how important stop-and-frisk has been to the city's ability to maintain a low crime rate is very much unsettled.

Zimring, the law professor at the University of California at Berkeley whose "Guinness" comment was cited by Kelly, has expressed some measured skepticism about the stop-and-frisk technique. He studied New York City's crime drops from 1990 to 2010, and last month he published a book about it called The City That Became Safe.

During an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show on December 12, Zimring was asked whether the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy "is or is not an effective strategy."

"I'm saying we don't know whether you need all that stopping and frisking to produce the effectiveness" of other NYPD tactics, like sending extra police officers into notoriously high-crime areas. "You can't know from the New York City data," Zimring said. "It may be effective but we're not going to be able to test that and the problem is, because it has enormous social and emotional costs, it's an open question which festers."

Delores Jones-Brown, a professor of law, police science and criminal justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said something similar.

"There is no way to measure someone not doing something because of something else," she told me in a recent interview. "The only thing you can do is ask people, 'The police are aggressively stopping people. Is that causing you to do the thing the department says, leave your gun at home?'"

Even then, she said, whoever was conducting the research would first have to find people who habitually carry guns, and who would also admit to doing so.

There is considerably less doubt about the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk policy among the criminologist-academics exists at the Manhattan Institute, the urban-conservative, New York-based think tank that produced the game-changing, era-defining "broken windows" theory of crime-fighting that provides part of the rationale for proactive stopping and frisking.

"I think it definitely has a deterrent effect on people carrying guns," said Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor to City Journal.

Mac Donald told me that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy became a deterrent for precisely the reason that its critics object to it: It casts a wide net, thereby significantly changing the odds that gun-carrying criminals will be able to get away with doing so, no matter how discreet they might be.

"Creating a greater chance of getting stopped gave an excuse to criminals to leave their guns at home," Mac Donald said. "They weren't just copping out or showing cowardice. 'There's a reason I'm doing this.'"

(According to State Senator Eric Adams, Kelly has said much the same thing in private meetings, namely that it is the intent of the policy to make everyone within its target group feel they might be searched at any time.)

I asked Mac Donald whether her observation was based on a study or an extrapolation of data and statistics. She said, "That's sort of what people were hearing on the street that were in contact with criminals."

I asked her what worst-case precedent existed to show what might happen if New York modified or did away with its stop-and-frisk policy.

"Well, the worst-case scenario is just compare it to Chicago," she said. "Their homicide rate is multiple times ours and [Columbia University professor Jeffrey] Fagan loves them because they don't do stop-and-frisks. The chances of young boys being killed there are many, many more times higher than in New York City."

Fagan, who lives in Brooklyn and teaches in Manhattan, argues that there's no correlation between the number of people stopped and frisked in troubled neighborhoods and concurrent reductions in crime in those areas.

He conducted a study last year which concluded that many of the NYPD's stops were unjustified. And in September, a federal judged relied on Fagan's findings when she refused to dismiss a complaint against the department's practice. The headline on the Times editorial about the judge's decision was "The Truth Behind Stop-and-Frisk."

Fagan believes that the department's application of stop-and-frisk doesn't have as much to do with broken-windows theory as it does with simple racial profiling.

"We actually measured the number of broken windows and vacant lots and abandoned buildings and all these other indicia of physical disorder in all the neighborhoods in New York and we compared the stop rates to the crime rates," Fagan said. "We found that broken windows had nothing to do with it. It was all about race."

Fagan, who is white, says he knows this first-hand.