Stop-and-Frisk May Have Been OK in the 1990s: Experts

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Two public policy experts, Charles Manski of Northwestern University and Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University, argue in a Washington Post op-ed that police use of “stop-and-frisk” may have been the right answer for crime in the 1990s, but less so in an era of greatly reduced crime. Past and current discussions have taken polarized positions: Stop-and-frisk is either good policing or it is reprehensible. The truth, they say, is that “the use of stop-and-frisk may be justified in high-crime environments, but not when crime rates are low. We should always use less intrusive tactics when possible.” Stop-and-frisk methods may reduce crime, but the costs of intrusion on the rights and privacy of innocent people cannot be overlooked, say Manski and Nagin.

The benefits of stop-and-frisk depend on the level of crime without the tactic, they write, saying, “A basic point from grade school arithmetic is that X percent of a big number is larger than X percent of a small number. Therefore, stop-and-frisk may have had substantial benefits in the high-crime period of the early 1990s but much lower benefit in the present low crime environment.” New York City police conducted 685,000 stops in the peak year of 2011. Stop-and-frisk may have been bad policy in 2011, when the city’s crime rate was relatively low, “but the trade-off looks quite different in earlier years, when the New York crime rate was much higher,” say Manski and Nagin.

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