Face Facts on Frisks: The NYPD’s Wise Policy

Heather Mac Donald, New York Post, May 19, 2009

THE New York Civil Liberties Union last week lodged another “racial-profiling” complaint about the NYPD, pointing to statistics for the first three months of 2009: 52 percent of all people stopped for questioning by the police were black, whereas 9 percent were white.

It would be illuminating if the NYCLU suggested what the proper percentage of stops should be for the various racial and ethnic groups. Doing so might force it to acknowledge the following facts about crime in New York: Blacks commit about 68 percent of all violent crime in the city, according to police records, though they are just 24 percent of the city’s population.

That crime number comes from victims and witnesses when they report attacks to the police. According to data from victims and witnesses, blacks commit about 82 percent of all shootings and 72 percent of all robberies. Whites commit about 5 percent of all violent crimes, though they make up 35 percent of the city’s population, and commit 1 percent of shootings and about 4 percent of robberies.

Now, given these crime rates, whom exactly does the NYCLU think the NYPD should be stopping? Police enforcement activity can reflect criminal behavior or population ratios–not both.

If stop-and-frisks mirrored the city’s racial, rather than crime, demographics, as the NYCLU seems to think they should, the police would be ignoring where crime is actually occurring and who its victims and perpetrators are. Recall that victims and witnesses report in 1 percent of all shootings in the city that the perpetrator was white.

When the police are trying to track down a shooting suspect, therefore, only 1 percent of the time are they looking for a white suspect. If the police were pressured into racial parity for gun stops, they would be ignoring victim identifications and misallocating their resources in a massive way.

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Wherever a rash of shootings or robberies breaks out, commanders will respond by flooding the zone with officers. The highest-crime areas of the city are those with the highest proportion of black residents.

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The same proportion of stops of blacks and whites–12 percent–results in a summons or an arrest, suggesting that the police use the same behavioral factors in deciding whom to stop. The NYCLU claims that this summons and arrest rate is too low, without revealing what a proper rate might be.

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New York’s sky-high crime rate of the late ’80s and early ’90s was turned around when the police started proactively using their powers to get criminals off the streets and to deter others from engaging in crime. Being stopped, questioned or frisked by an officer when you have done nothing wrong is an annoyance, which the police must mitigate by courteous behavior and an explanation for the stop. Getting shot, however, is more than an annoyance; it can be a life destroyer.

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Here’s a suggestion for the NYCLU: If you want to lower the rate of police activity in black neighborhoods, put some effort into lowering the crime rate. Attacking the police for fighting crime is a dangerous distraction.

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