Crime and punishment: Bloomberg’s legacy on stop and frisk

Outside the federal courthouse building in Manhattan, protesters hold signs showing statistics on police stops. (Photo credit: Matt Surrusco)

Outside the federal courthouse building in Manhattan, protesters hold signs showing statistics on police stops. (Photo credit: Matt Surrusco)

This story, featured in The Bloomberg Legacy, which was nominated for a 2013 Online News Association award for best student project, was originally published May 24, 2013 on the NYCity News Service.

MANHATTAN, New York — Dawit Getachew was outside his Harlem apartment building, speaking on the phone with his brother, in 2009, the first time he was stopped by police.

“One of the officers approached me and said, ‘do you have anything on you?’ and tried to pat me down,” said Getachew, 27, speaking to a crowd of students, professors and activists protesting outside the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan last month.

After he questioned whether the police officer had the right to frisk him, Getachew, a City University of New York law student, said the officer put his hand on his gun holster, scaring him.

“We deserve a system that improves our safety, but not at the expense of our dignity,” Getachew said. “We have to speak up and demand better.”

Inside the courthouse at 500 Pearl Street, U.S. district judge Shira Scheindlin is deciding whether the New York Police Department’s practice of the tactic used to stop Getachew and numerous others violates individuals’ constitutional rights.

Stop, question and frisk is legally grounded in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio and New York criminal procedure law, which allows police to stop, question and sometimes frisk people whom officers reasonably suspect of committing a crime.

A federal class action lawsuit against the City of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD officers went to trial on March 18, with plaintiffs alleging the defendants have allowed a policy of unconstitutional police stops and frisks that amount to racial profiling.

But outside the courthouse, at protests and public forums, in research studies and op-ed pages, the debate that will shape Bloomberg’s legacy on crime centers around two issues: whether stop and frisk has actually lowered crime in the city, and the social impact on communities of color that have experienced the highest rates of stops.

DOES STOP AND FRISK LOWER CRIME?

The NYPD, Kelly and Bloomberg have long said stop and frisk has contributed to lower crime rates in the five boroughs.

“There is no doubt that stops are a vitally important reason why so many fewer gun murders happen in New York than in other major cities – and why we are the safest big city in America,” Bloomberg said in a speech to NYPD leadership on April 30.

Since 2002, the year Bloomberg was elected, the number of police stops in New York City has passed 5 million and increased by nearly 450 percent, from 2002 to 2012, according to NYPD data. During the same period, the murder rate dropped nearly 30 percent, with last year marking the fewest homicides in New York City in recorded history.

But is the drop in murder, rape and robbery rates due to the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy?  Some researchers doubt the connection between more police stops and lower crime.

“The leap from a correlation to a causation is exactly one of the empirical mistakes the administration is making,” said Brett Stoudt, assistant professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center. “The crime rate, what causes crime to go up and down, is a very complex thing.”

Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at John Jay and founding director of the college’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice, argued that many factors have contributed to New York City’s drop in crime, including policing strategies.

“But certainly it’s not the case that the policing would be the end all and be all of crime decline in the city,” she said.

Proponents, however, see stop and frisk as “one of the [NYPD’s] most important crime-fighting techniques,” as Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute, wrote in a March 25 op-ed in the NY Post.

Mac Donald, author of the 2003 book “Are Cops Racist? How the War Against the Police Harms Black Americans,” said she sees “proactive policing” as an effective deterrent to would-be criminals because it encourages them not to carry guns and risk being arrested.

“It is pretty clear that [stop and frisk] has affected criminal behavior,” Mac Donald said in a phone interview.

While researchers can analyze decreasing crime rates, the causes of the crime decline are less easy to gauge.

According to the mayor, “Over the past 11 years, stops have taken 8,200 illegal guns off our streets – and murder-by-guns has dropped dramatically.”

The numbers sound impressive, but they don’t tell the whole story. Less than half of one percent of stops each year, from 2003 to 2008, resulted in the recovery of an illegal gun, according to John Jay’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice 2010 stop, question and frisk primer. But, the majority of people stopped – 89 percent in 2012 – are not arrested or given summonses, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

With a “90 percent failure rate,” Jones-Brown said, statistics show the tactic is more effective at stopping innocent people then catching criminals.

The Manhattan Institute’s Mac Donald, however, said the low arrest, summons and gun recovery rates actually show stop and frisk is working to lower crime.

“What would deterrents look like, if not a low rate of gun carrying?” she said.

WHAT IS STOP AND FRISK’S IMPACT ON COMMUNITIES OF COLOR?

Whether the policy has actually reduced crime is not clear, but the sides in the debate surrounding stop and frisk are well defined.  Critics cite alleged civil rights abuses and raise charges of racial profiling. They point to the fact that most of the New Yorkers who have been stopped – 87 percent in 2011 and 2012, according to NYPD data – were black or Hispanic.

People who have been stopped repeatedly mention feelings of fear and distrust of the police, being targeted based on their race and not feeling safe in their neighborhoods, according to activists and researchers.

“There are people who feel like they are considered criminals because they’re black, because they’re brown or because they’re young,” said Stoudt, the John Jay College assistant professor, who recently published findings from community surveys distributed to 1,030 residents in a South Bronx neighborhood.

Stop and frisk supporters and the NYPD say police do not stop people based on race, but on suspect descriptions and reasonable suspicion, such as witnessing a suspect casing a location or potential victim.

Recently, Bloomberg and Kelly responded to public allegations of racial profiling.

“The sad reality is on the streets of our city, 90 percent of murder suspects and murder victims are black and Latino,” Bloomberg said during his April speech.

In 2012, 55 percent of people stopped were black. While 61 percent of known violent crime suspects in the same year were black, according to NYPD data, slightly less (51 percent) of all known crime suspects were black.

The demographic data on stops is “more than commensurate with crime data,” according to Mac Donald. “Blacks are actually under stopped compared to their representation in the criminal population.”

Damont Dillard, 19, from Brooklyn, was stopped by police more than a dozen times, he said.

“I’m used to getting stopped and it sucks,” said Dillard, who has never been arrested nor convicted of a crime. “Even when they stop me now it’s just like…I know the routine.”

Other law-abiding New Yorkers who have been stopped say they feel targeted by police.

“Just because I am a colored youth, doesn’t mean I am a troublemaker,” said Manny Yusuf, 14, of Queens. “I am a straight A student.”

Originally from Bangladesh, Yusuf, who was stopped and frisked by a police officer last year on her way home from school, said she would like the mayor “to at least try to see our point” about the problems with stop and frisk.

In the first three months of this year, recorded police stops dropped by half compared to the same period last year, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

“Staffing and other factors, including training, have had a bearing on the number of stops,” said chief NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, as quoted in the Journal. “But the bottom line is that the total number of stops in any given quarter reflects what the police officers on duty during that quarter observed.”

Dillard, who has been stopped in areas with some of the highest rates, including Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, said if officials understood what it was like to be stopped regularly maybe they would change how the policy is used.

“If [Bloomberg’s] kids and his family were walking outside everyday and being stopped by these same police,” Dillard said, “would he be so kind to say that it’s working?”