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Stop-and-Frisk in NYC: Myths and Reality

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is facing what may be his second major defeat in as many weeks. Last week a federal judge ruled that his racial profiling program known as "stop-and-frisk" is unconstitutional. Tomorrow, the City Council will vote on whether to override his veto of the Community Safety Act, a set of bills which will rein in the program's abuses.

Nevertheless, Mayor Bloomberg and his police commissioner Ray Kelly have defiantly continued to defend "stop-and-frisk" in the press. Let's take a look at some of their biggest myths:

Myth one: Ending stop-and-frisk will put people in danger

Last weekend, Commissioner Kelly was asked if reforming his stop-and-frisk program would cause more people to die. He responded, "No question about it, violent crime will go up." Mayor Bloomberg was more direct: "I worry for my kids. I worry for your kids. I worry for you and I worry for me."

Last year Mayor Bloomberg predicted that a decrease in police stops would lead to an increase in crime. The facts do not support his theory. In 2012, in response to public outcry, the number of police stops decreased by 22 percent -- or more than 150,000 people. Did this quick drop-off result in a massive uptick in crime? Not at all. In fact, the homicide rate dropped by 19 percent.

Myth two: "Stop-and-frisk" is not a program, and it is not racial profiling

Ray Kelly has asserted both of these claims; neither one is true.

There is in fact a general police tactic known as "stop-and-frisk." But the NYPD's formal program, while commonly referred to by the same name, is different. It was formerly introduced by Mayor Giuliani as "stop, question and frisk" and was expanded and even marketed by Mayor Bloomberg. Already, cities like San Francisco, after reviewing the program, have turned it down.

A wide range of experts, from criminologists to federal judges, have concluded that the program amounts to racial profiling. Indeed, in 2011 there were more stops of young black men in New York City than there are young black men in New York City.

New York's stop-and-frisk program is not just a racial profiling program; it appears to be the largest one in the country.

Myth three: Racial profiling is necessary to drive down crime

It is true that violent crime fell by 29 percent in New York City between 2001 and 2010 as Mayor Bloomberg and Kelly rapidly increased their racial profiling program.

But it is worth noting that in the same decade, violent crime decreased more in other cities: by 59 percent in Los Angeles; 49 percent in Dallas; and 37 percent in Baltimore. The city with the biggest decrease, Los Angeles, was simultaneously implementing major reforms to curb racial profiling.

Myth four: Mayor Bloomberg and Ray Kelly are responsible for low crime rates

Mayor Bloomberg has consistently overstated his role in making New York City safer. The city's crime rate started to drop in the 1990s during the Dinkins administration, and continued falling through the Giuliani years. In fact, almost three quarters of the city's drop in violent crime over the past 20 years occurred before Mayor Bloomberg took office.

Commissioner Kelly told Time magazine in 2001 that claiming credit for falling crime rates was "like trying to take credit for an eclipse." He and Mayor Bloomberg should remember those words.

Myth five: If stop-and-frisk works, then a lot of "stop-and-frisk" works better

Former NYPD and LAPD Police Chief Bill Bratton has said that the general police tactic of stop-and-frisk (as opposed to NYPD's abusive program) is "the most basic tool fundamental of American policing." He also said that stop-and-frisk is like chemotherapy -- a little bit is helpful, but too much is deadly.

If that is the case, then Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have decide to radiate not just the impacted organ, but the rest of the patient, their family and the entire neighborhood.

There is a clear distinction between the tactic of legal police stops -- which were ruled constitutional in 1968 -- and the bastardized version employed in New York City. Under Bloomberg and Kelly, stop-and-frisk has been expansive, discriminatory, and according to a federal judge, illegal and unconstitutional.

Myth six: Stop-and-frisk is based on behavior and not on race

Commissioner Kelly claims that his officers stop people for openly suspicious acts, like checking car door handles or making threatening gestures at shopkeepers. Such behavior is suspicious and should be dealt with accordingly. But more than half of the police stops in 2011 fell under the vague category of "furtive movements", and in 2009, officers failed to even list a suspected crime on their police reports.

Consider the example provided by the New York Times last summer: An NYPD officer searching for a male rape suspect stopped to question four young women of color sitting outside their home. The women were not able to help with the search, but before leaving, the officer frisked all four.

Myth seven: Ray Kelly has always supported "stop-and-frisk"

Commissioner Kelly spoke in 2001 about then-Mayor Giuliani's use of stop-and-frisk. Speaking in front of the City Bar Association, he said that "[A] large reservoir of good will was under construction when I left the Police Department in 1994. It was called community policing. But it was quickly abandoned for tough-sounding rhetoric and dubious stop-and-frisk tactics that sowed new seeds of community distrust."

It is worth noting that in 2002, the NYPD stopped 97,296 New Yorkers. Ten years later, in 2011, Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly expanded the program to 685,724 stops.

Commissioner Kelly had it right the first time -- and unless he and Mayor Bloomberg change course, their extreme reliance on tough-sounding rhetoric and dubious tactics will continue to drive the city apart.