Ray Kelly and the momentum of current stop-and-frisk policy

Ray Kelly at City Hall. (Azi Paybarah )
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Chris Smith has a compelling 5,800-word cover story in New York magazine about the psyche of police officers under the data-driven leadership of Ray Kelly that offers, among other things, a possible explanation for the department's application of the stop-and-frisk technique as part of a never-ending effort to canvass the streets for illegal weapons. 

An anonymous officer in Brooklyn explains, "The theory was, if cops were forced to write down what they were doing, they wouldn’t be so haphazard about stopping people and frisking them. But because the department loves data, now those reports are activity that can prove you’re taking action at CompStat."

Stop-and-frisk is broadly accepted as a component of the city's crime-fighting efforts, but its execution by the NYPD is a matter of heated debate. As I reported late last year, the science is unsettled about where the point of diminishing returns is, in terms of how aggressive the department can be about targeting residents for stop-and-frisk.

It's more complicated, in other words, than Kelly's (and the mayor's) bottom-line, all-purpose response that crime is down. That isn't an argument-ender, any more than Kelly's extraordinary and hard-earned personal popularity is. (As Reid Pillifant reported last September, Kelly's enduringly high approval rating in New York functions quite independently of people's more dynamic feelings about the department.)

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The commissioner no doubt believes it when he says, forcefully, that the city is doing what is necessary to keep crime down, in the absence of any workable alternatives. But, as the New York article suggests, the current version of stop-and-frisk policy has a momentum of its own that may have as much to do with the current system of intra-department accountability as does with its effect on crime:

To Kelly, “stop, question, and frisk” is an essential tool used to get weapons off the street, especially in high-crime precincts. For the commissioner, the important facts are a 51 percent reduction in homicides compared to the previous decade and the seizure of more than 8,000 weapons, including 819 guns, in the past year. To critics, however, stop-and-frisk has become a ritualized harassment of neighborhoods—with just 12 percent of last year’s record 684,330 stops leading to arrests or summonses and one percent to the recovery of a weapon—and racist, with 87 percent of those stopped being black or Hispanic. Yet cops say both arguments miss an important point: that stop-and-frisk is an easy way for supervisors to feed the statistical beast, to show that action is being taken to deal with spikes in crime.