07/01/2009 08:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The High Cost Of A Low Crime Rate Under Mayor Bloomberg

One great surprise of Mayor Bloomberg's tenure is the continuing decrease in New York City's crime rate. When he took office in 2002, the smart money said that after so many years of reduction, crime would hit a floor and start creeping up, especially given a weakened economy and budget cuts that slashed NYPD headcount by 12 percent between 2000 and 2008. Instead, crime has fallen 27 percent since 2001. At one recent City Council hearing, the chief beef to the NYPD was that last year's crime reductions hadn't been large enough! David Dinkins must have fantasized about getting complaints like that.

But even as crime has fallen under Bloomberg, another statistic has risen sharply: the number of times the NYPD reports stopping and questioning and/or frisking people. That figure has climbed from 315,000 stops in 2004 to 531,000 in 2008. And the climb in police stops is continuing: In the first three months of 2009, the number of stops leapt 18 percent over the same period in '08. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, that puts the NYPD on pace to do 626,000 stops this year--equivalent to asking the entire city of Seattle to show some ID.

There are some striking disparities in the numbers:
  • From 2004 to 2008, the number of stops increased 68 percent even though crime fell 17 percent.
  • Blacks, who make up a quarter of the city's population, comprise half the stops so far in 2009. Whites are 44 percent of the city's people but only about 10 percent of the stops. (Hispanics were searched roughly in line with their share of population.)
  • In East New York's 75th precinct, the police stopped 8,073 people in the first quarter, compared to 250 in the Midtown North precinct. Granted, there has been five times as much violent crime East New York as there was in Midtown North so far this year. But there were 32 times as many searches in the 75th. The cops searched 13 people per violent crime in East New York. In Midtown, they searched two.
However, there's also a lot of complexity in where those numbers come from:
  • The NYPD has been ramping up its data-collection system to track the searches, so some of the year-to-year increase is likely due to better reporting and recordkeeping, rather than an actual uptick in stops.
  • The racial makeup of those stopped, dramatic as it is, does mirror crime victims' reports of the race of perpetrators: In the first quarter of 2009, about 51 percent of perpetrators were identified as black and about 5 percent as white. A Rand Corporation study in 2007 found that blacks who were stopped were more likely to be frisked, arrested or have force used against them than "similarly situated" whites, but the differences were slight.
  • The geographic disparities between places like East New York and Midtown have a lot do with the NYPD's Operation Impact, in which extra policing manpower is devoted to high-crime districts. That means lots of cops walking the beat--and employing an aggressive approach to searches because of high crime--in areas that tend to have a largely nonwhite population. More crime means more cops, more cops means more searches, and more searches in Impact areas mean more searches of black people because that's who lives there, goes the argument.

So the racial skew and upward trend in stops aren't what they seem at first blush. But there's still that rawest of numbers: 531,000 stops last year, maybe 626,000 stops this year. Even if it's not rising precipitously, and even if the racial and geographic disparities are reasonable, is it a good thing for the 5-0 to be stopping so many of us?

The NYPD's spokesman Paul Browne (who declined to comment for this posting) told the Daily News earlier this year: "In a city where police make 400,000 arrests annually based on the higher standard of probable cause, 500,000 stops annually is not unreasonable."

Of course, only about 6 percent of stops so far in 2009 actually resulted in arrest and another 6 percent in summonses. So the people most directly affected by the stops are the innocent. And for innocent people who are stopped—and 88 percent of those stopped so far this year have been innocent—it's not fun.

I was stopped and questioned in mid-June as I walked down Webster Avenue in the Bronx at noon. In an area where I have lived for 11 of the last 15 years, I had to tell two detectives where I was going to and coming from—in effect, to justify my presence on a street in broad daylight, as shoppers and restaurant workers watched. I wondered if I matched the description of a suspect. Had I done something wrong? They looked at my ID and got back into their car. They didn't tell me why they'd stopped me, so I asked. "There's a lot of drug activity in the area," one explained.

It was an unsettling experience, even for an adult white man who knows his rights and had nothing to fear. Among nonwhite teenagers I have spoken to, the experience of getting stopped and questioned by police has soured them on the NYPD. That risks undermining the cops' ability to get cooperation from the citizens they are trying to protect.

There are several Bloomberg-era law-and-order policies that deserve more scrutiny than they've received, including surveillance, handling protests, and (as City Limits Investigates will report in our July issue) a sharp increase in the number of people arrested over the past eight years for the lowest-level marijuana charges. Among these, the question of stop-and-frisks is most deserving of a full debate.

The fact is, many of us who enjoy the luxury of life in New York without much fear of crime have not been forced to confront the price some of our neighbors are paying for it under what Bloomberg's campaign materials refer to as his "focus on aggressive crime fighting techniques." Maybe those techniques are justified. Maybe they're not. But they certainly come at a cost.

A mayor who has asked New Yorkers to confront other uncomfortable truths—about our trans-fatty diets, our barroom smoking, our carbon footprints—could do us all a favor by puncturing the mirage of an ever-increasing yet costless sense of security. A mayor who—in perhaps his finest hour—expressed sympathy and employed candor to soothe communities outraged by the killing of Sean Bell by police officers can address the question of police stop-and-frisks with similar sympathy and candor.

The question, simply, is whether New Yorkers and their mayor are prepared to accept a trade-off in which the NYPD each year treats as suspects more people than live in the city of Boston. As a detective on Webster Avenue might ask, where are we headed?