Letter to NYC's Next Mayor: Don't Listen to the Crime Fear-Mongers


As New Yorkers are poised to elect a new mayor today, the greatest challenge that the new administration will face is how to keep crime low without violating the civil rights of the city's most vulnerable residents.

A recent poll suggests that some New Yorkers are less concerned with civil rights, so long as crime is low. But the tool that the New York Police Department (NYPD) credits most with producing a 10-year crime lull has twice been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge (in Ligon v. City of New York & Floyd v. City of New York).

Civil libertarians are rightly confused by the poll results. All New Yorkers should be.

After all, don't we expect the police to act within the limits of the law?

There is clear evidence from the police department's own statistics that stop and frisk tactics do a terrible job of detecting crime. Annually, stops recovering guns amount to less than half of one percent of the total number of stops.

Less than two per cent of stops result in the recovery of drugs, and most involve small amounts of marijuana, not hard drugs. On average, six percent of stops result in an arrest and most of them are for low level offenses, such as disorderly conduct (see Stop, Question and Frisk (SQF Revised Primer Figure 6).

Over the ten-year period, millions of police encounters have turned up comparatively few guns, drugs, weapons, or serious felons.

Rather than focus on other police tactics with measurable evidence that they work to apprehend offenders and prevent crime, officials seem to have successfully convinced many New Yorkers that aggressively stopping innocent pedestrians works best as a crime fighting tool.

Even putting constitutional concerns aside, this seems counter intuitive—since the statistical risk of real criminals being stopped by the police appears to be extremely low.

Those who continue to fear that reducing the use of stop and frisk will result in a major crime increase fail to heed admissions by the Commissioner that he both recognizes the harm caused by “dubious stop and frisk tactics” and attributes the continuing decline in City homicides to police tactics other than stop and frisk. Departmental statistics are clear that each year roughly eighty percent of all firearm arrests in the city do not involve stop and frisk. (Figure 10 in SQF Revised Primer cited above) .

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg , the NYPD and police unions have filed law suits against the judge's ruling and against the City Council for passing bills to fix the problem, the general public should take note that police officers themselves and a district attorney testified against stop and frisk practices in the Floyd lawsuit.

The failure to detect crime using stop and frisk has been excused by claims that the tactic deters crime. Low city-wide crime statistics are used to support this claim. In practice, stops tend to be focused in a small number of so-called “high crime” neighborhoods or precincts.

These areas are referred to tactically as “impact zones” and receive a significant share of police patrol and attention. But, even in these zones, when the police make the decision to stop someone, the stops typically fail to uncover illegality.

Crime statistics in those areas also fail to demonstrate a consistent decline that would be indicative of a deterrent effect. Lower crime in such areas has been attributed to other sources including economics, birth and mortality rates and the crime fighting efforts of local residents.

Because more than 80 percent of police stops involve Black or Latino “suspects”—mostly males between the ages of 13 and 24—the police department has been accused of racial profiling.

The crux of the accusation is that when stopped, the overwhelming majority of these young men who are “suspected” are not subsequently found to be engaged in crime.

Can the City be kept safe without racial profiling? The short answer is yes and in some ways it already is.

When asked to explain why murders in the City continue to fall despite a double-digit percent decrease in recorded stops, Commissioner Ray Kelly has pointed to police tactics that focus specifically on gang retaliation and domestic violence as 'targeted' approaches to addressing potential lethal violence.

Similarly, community groups have worked independently and with the NYPD to identify and address crime problems in various neighborhoods. Residents have more specific knowledge of who the problem people and places are in a community.

To gain access to this information, the new administration will have to work hard to repair the riff that stop and frisk policing has created between the department and that public.

Criminologist Frank Zimring identified “hot spots” policing as a technique or strategy that he found directly relating to the crime decline in New York, a technique that is far more limited and discerning than widespread stopping and frisking of neighborhood residents.

Little or no attention has been paid to the fact that the tremendous increase in mere police presence in neighborhoods, that were previously ignored, has likely had an impact on crime in so-called “high crime” areas.

What rationally thinking criminal would commit a crime in front of patrolling police officers? Foot patrols, without aggressive stop and frisk, have been shown to reduce crime in urban cities in the past.

For more than four decades criminologist have known that a significant portion of violent crime in any city is perpetrated by a few identifiable repeat offenders. Using this established knowledge, some police departments have partnered with probation and parole officers to focus their attention on serious repeat offenders (SROs).

SROs are individuals who have been arrested for gun possession or crimes of violence more than once. By monitoring them closely it is expected that police can affect their motivation and opportunities to commit new crimes.

By focusing on known serious offenders, SRO strategies can significantly decrease the number of innocent individuals who are under surveillance within a given community and increase the yield from any one surveillance effort.

For example, the use of the SRO approach by one urban police department yielded 28 illegal guns from a single suspect, the equivalent of nearly 3.5 percent of the guns recovered from nearly 700,000 stops by NYPD in 2011.

While heralded for its diversity, sophistication, and technological savvy, it is still the case that NYPD officers are largely drawn from communities outside the high stop areas of the City. This increases the likelihood that officers may see criminality where there is only class, race, ethnic or other differences between the officers and the civilians they police.

The incoming administration must work to correct the wrong-headed and constitutionally impermissible thinking about the NYPD's crime reduction capabilities to date. Each of the policing strategies discussed previously, as alternatives to aggressive stop and frisk, have names, significance, and supporting evidence as policing “best practices.”

Most have been or are being used in New York City, though in comparison to stop and frisk, they have not gotten the attention or credit they deserve as crime fighting/ crime reduction tools.

Researchers have established that hot spots policing, problem-oriented policing, community-policing, “targeted”or “focused” policing are all techniques that have simultaneously been used to address crime in New York City. These strategies should continue to be used and be used more under the incoming administration. Aggressive stop and frisk should be used far less.

It is already the case that policing resources are not evenly distributed across New York City. Future planning should tailor policing to the needs of individual neighborhoods or precincts as determined by input from varied community residents, not just business owners and the employed.

The fear-mongering, race baiting, laziness and constitutional violations that accompany aggressive stop and frisk as the City's primary policing strategy, or at least the one most publicized, must be brought to an end.

The new administration must increase smart policing with directly measureable results and that is respectful to all New York residents, visitors and workers, who despite challenging economic and social factors, manage to live within the limits of the law.

Police tactics that are constitutionally and morally invalid must be decreased. No matter how popular or seemingly convincing, the incoming administration must not bend to trends that are supported by long-standing crime stereotypes and that harm those who live in the communities in need of police services the most.

Delores Jones-Brown, J.D., PH.D., is a Professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College, and is founding director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice. She is also a former New Jersey prosecutor. She welcomes comments from readers.

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