Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Is Stop-and-Frisk Worth It?

I haven't really thought much about this question, so I found this to be a very interesting article:

It's long, so here's the short version:

1. Stop-and-Frisk policies are policies based on the 'broken-window' theory of crime- the theory that crime is sort of like a slipperly-slope virus: small crimes create a sense that the law isn't really being enforced, which encourages larger and larger crimes. So, the way to stop crimes is to crack down on the small stuff.

2. So, Stop-and-Frisk involves stopping and searching people who cops think might be up to no good.

3. At least in NYC, Stop-and-Frisk stops and frisks races and neighborhoods in proportion to their crime rates.

4. Since criminals tend to be disproportionately minorities, this means that the people stopped and frisked are disproportionately minorities. In NYC, about 12% of the stops ended in an arrest or a summons.

5. Stop-and-Frisk policies seem to have significantly reduced crime around the country. (Or at least that's what this article claims by interviewing one scholar. The reduction in crime is one of the more contentious issues. It seems everyone has a different theory, though this article makes plausible arguments against some of the other main contenders.)

6. At the cost of disproportionately impacting minorities, who have mixed feelings about the policy. Many feel humiliated by it, though they still feel its effective.

7. A federal judge recently ruled it unconstitutional.

The tradeoff here appears to be between safety on the one hand and 'fairness' and emotional impact on the other.

I put 'fairness' in quotes, because different people view fairness differently. Some people view fair as patting down people essentially randomly, while others view patting down people in proportion to their likelihood to commit crimes as fair.

In this case, I see the latter as far fairer: the whole point of law-enforcement is to protect and serve the city as a whole, and its a huge waste of effort to not target those you think have committed crimes.

I haven't given this too much thought, but it seems like stop-and-frisk was worth it: it probably contributed to reduced crimes (how much, I don't know), and was pretty fair. I would agree with the article though- to the extent police officers can be more polite while doing it, that's going to be much better. If less than half the stops find stuff, you probably shouldn't rush in and be gruff about it. It's counterproductive to alienate people in rough neighborhoods and have them view the cops as enemies. As was said during the Iraq war, you're trying to win hearts and minds- ultimately, you want all neighborhoods to be safe, clean places. The more you can get the people in those communities to support the police and law and order, the easier that will be. Treating innocent people badly is unjust and counterproductive.


  1. 1) Please note that 12% of stop-and-frisks result in charges, but less than 0.2% involve a gun (which may or may not be legally registered). Most charges are for disobeying an officer--essentially crimes that are created by this style of policing as people get upset when they are frisked and overreact. There is no evidence that stop & frisk has reduced crime, since higher drops in crime occurred in other cities not using stop & frisk during the same time period that the policy has been enacted in NYC. My own experience has been that since being harassed by the police, I distrust them, and feel more reluctant to go to them for help or to report a suspected crime, because I don´t expect them to handle the situation professionally or fairly.
    2) ¨Since criminals tend to be disproportionately minorities.¨ What evidence do you have to support that statement? Yes, the majority of incarcerated people in the United States are people of color. A huge number are convicted of drug charges. Yet multiple scientifically-vigorous surveys found that white non-hispanics use illegal drugs at a much higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group. That´s by percentage, not numbers. And the same surveys found most drug users buy from dealers of their same race. At least as far as the ¨war on drugs¨ goes, white non-hispanics are the greatest criminals. They´re also more likely statistically to be home-grown terrorists and serial-killers. There are lots of crimes I haven´t mentioned, so it is still possible your statement is true, but without fact to back it up, the statement is merely bigotry.
    3) Because some readers will wonder, I´m white, female, born in the US, and upper-middle-class. I grew up in the country but lived in NYC for 4 years.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Emily.

      You quote from the seven bullet points I have above. Those bullet points are a summary of the (long) Atlantic article about Stop and Frisk. It's very interesting, but I figure that many readers won't have the time to read all of it, so I gave a short summary of it. You can agree or disagree with those points, but they come from the article; so that's where to start if you take issue with any of them.

      Does Stop and Frisk reduce crime? I don't know. As I said, my knowledge of this area is very limited. But the article does a great job of addressing many of the common alternative explanations- it's worth a careful read. Still, it's very possible that the decline of lead in the environment is an even bigger explanation.

      Your last point is interesting, and one which I might blog about in the future. More frequently in the past few years, it seems that some are dismissing the points others make simply because of who they are. But the quality of your argument has nothing to do with who you are (rich/poor, black/white, male/female) or what you've done (been a student, worked for an oil company, worked for a gay-rights groups). Dismissing your argument because of those things is just an ad-hominem attack. It can be a powerful rhetorical technique, but it's also a way to avoid debating something on its merits. It's a sign of weakness, not strength.