In March, the New York Police Department released its stop-and-frisk numbers for 2010, and they are quite alarming. The total number of stops conducted by NYPD officers increased for a third year in a row, to more than 600,000, an all-time record and a more than 600% increase since 2002, the first year of the Michael Bloomberg – Ray Kelly administration.
Even more disturbing are the stats on whom and where the police are stopping-and-frisking. More than 85% of those stopped-and-frisked last year were Black or Latino, even though those two groups together make up only around 50% of New York City’s population, and the ten precincts with the greatest numbers of stops all have majority Black and/or Latino populations, including three in Central Brooklyn: the 73rd in Brownsville, the 75th in Crown Heights/East New York, and the 79th in Bed-Stuy. Meanwhile, for most of the past decade, crime has continued to drop or stay flat both Citywide and in communities of color in particular.
The NYPD offers several explanations for these disturbing stop-and-frisk numbers, none of which is convincing. First, they claim that the racial disparities in the stop-and frisk data match the racial demographics of violent criminal suspects, 90% of whom the NYPD says are Black or Latino. But this 90% figure is inaccurate because it only represents those violent crimes where the race of the suspect is known, while a study conducted last fall by Professor Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University found that suspect race is actually unknown in almost half of all violent crimes reported to the NYPD. (A copy of Professor Fagan’s study is available here.)
So in reality, the percentage of violent crimes known to have been committed by Black and Latino suspects is under 50%. More importantly, less than 15 % of all stops-and-frisks are made on suspicion of a violent crime, while the vast majority of stops are made on suspicion of property, quality of life, and non-violent drug offenses. The race of violent criminal suspects therefore tells us little to nothing about the racial disparities in stop-and-frisk.
The NYPD also says that it concentrates its stop-and-frisk activity in the highest-crime areas of the City, which “just happen” to have high Black and/or Latino populations. Again, the data tells a different story. In his analysis of six-years worth of NYPD stop-and-frisk and crime data, Professor Fagan found that, even after controlling for higher crime rates and more police officers deployed in certain precincts, the higher the Black and/or Latino population in a precinct, the more stop-and-frisk activity in that precinct. Professor Fagan also found that Black and Latino pedestrians were more likely than Whites to be stopped-and-frisked even in low-crime, majority White precincts.
As for the NYPD’s claims that stop-and-frisk has reduced crime and made the City safer, neither the NYPD’s own data nor years of social science research support this conclusion. Only about 1 out of every 10 stops-and-frisks uncover evidence of a crime, and illegal weapons are only recovered in a little more than 1% of the stops. In addition, a 2004 study by the National Research Council found no reliable empirical evidence linking aggressive use of street-level policing tactics like stop-and-frisk with crime reduction. In fact, the research and common sense suggest just the opposite.
Overly-aggressive and racially biased stops-and-frisks increase fear and distrust of the police in communities of color and therefore make these communities less, not more, likely to cooperate with police in fighting crime. Moreover, criminologists and policing experts have been warning for years that citizens tend not to comply with laws they believe are being enforced against them in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.
In short, the data and research clearly show what we at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and others in the civil rights and police accountability movements have known for years: The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk strategy is about race, not crime-fighting. It’s time for the NYPD to put an end to these shameful, illegal, and ineffective practices. Unfortunately, the last decade has taught us that the NYPD won’t to do so on its own. These long-overdue changes will only happen if civil rights and police accountability advocates, City, state, and federal government officials and, most importantly, members of the communities most impacted by stop-and-frisk, make an effort to hold the NYPD’s feet to the fire.
The CCR is pushing for some simple fixes which the NYPD could implement tomorrow, and which would have a huge effect. First, transfer the authority to prosecute all susbtantiated civilian complaints of police misconduct (including but not limited to complaints of improper stops-and-frisks) from the police dept itself to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). The CCRB has the capacity to do this, and police dept has shown for many years that it is unwilling and/or unable to hold officers accountable for violating people’s rights.
Also, the Civil Rights Division of the US Dept of Justice should investigate the stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD for civil rights violations. The DOJ should come up with a list of policy changes that it requires the NYPD to make, or face a lawsuit. Similar investigations were done by the DOJ in Cincinatti, Los Angeles and most recently New Orleans. In the first two cities, the investigations ultimately led to signifcant reforms in those cities’ police departments, and New Orleans is now in the process of implementing several of the DOJ’s recommendations as well.
Here at CCR, we are using both litigation and grassroots education and advocacy strategies to make these sorts of reforms happen. To find out more about our work and how to get involved, please visit us here.
Some more reading on the subject from the BMC: