NYPD does more stop-and-frisks than ever, leaving ‘efficiency’ questions for another time

Ray Kelly. (Azi Paybarah via flickr)
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The New York Police Department made a record number of stop-and-frisks last year, a fact that has been justified by the police department in terms of the results: "Stops save lives," a spokesman said.

It's a point NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has made earlier and  it echoes part of what City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said in a letter to the department last week (which also said the procedure sows "distrust" among minorities and needs to be better executed).

But it's worth remembering, as the police department comes to rely more heavily than ever before on this tactic, that the science on it, such as it is, is still unsettled.

The leading expert in this genre is criminologist Frank Zimring, who wrote a favorable book about the NYPD's fight against crime and was quoted by the NYPD commissioner when he and the mayor announced end-of-year crime states in December.

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Zimring has praised the NYPD's work to reduce crime without filling jail cells but has said there's no way of telling how well stop-and-frisk works, and how important it has been to the department's overall successes in fighting crime.

In a Dec. 12 interview on WNYC, Andrea Bernstein asked Zimring if stop-and-frisk "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, he said. Zimring said calculated the "social and emotional costs" is "an open question which festers."

And during an October 26, 2010 talk at a crime policy think tank in New York last year, Zimring effusively praised the NYPD for a remarkable job in reducing crime, but singled out the stop-and-frisk for being an uncertain catalyst in that change.

"The biggest unknown has to do with the stop-and-frisk aggressiveness," he said.

"The New York City Police Department is one of the most aggressive police departments we've ever seen. And the big question - that's part and parcel of a lot of other things, that's part of hotspots [sending cops into high-crime areas], that's part of destruction of open-air drug markets, but the question is, does getting aggressive, does making 600,000 stops add value to these techniques. And the answer is a great big we don't know."

UPDATE: The chairman of the Public Safety Committee in the City Council, Peter Vallone Jr., a Democrat from Queens, said the stop-and-frisk statistics help explain the department's success.

The "stats show a lot more work by a lot fewer officers, which is one of the primary reasons why more lives were saved last year and crime has only inched back up, and didn't rocket back up" Vallone said in an email to me.