Bloomberg Likens the NYPD's 'Stop and Frisk' Program to Random DUI Checkpoints


This week, as Ed Krayewski noted yesterday, the New York Civil Liberties Union reported that as the number of "stop and frisk" encounters initiated by the NYPD grew from about 100,000 in Michael Bloomberg's first year as mayor to almost 700,000 last year, the share of stops yielding guns fell from 0.38 percent (one gun per 266 stops) to 0.033 percent (one gun per 3,000 stops). In a radio interview this morning, Bloomberg said that trend shows the program is working:

The number of guns that we've been finding has continued to go down, which says the program at this scale is doing a great job….The whole idea here, John, is not to catch people with guns; it's to prevent people from carrying guns. It's like a stop we have for driving while intoxicated. It would be great if everybody said, "Oh my goodness, I might get stopped so I'm not gonna drink and drive." That's great. That's what we want. That would be wonderful. And the fact that we're getting fewer guns says  the program is working. And the program will really have succeeded when we don't get any guns.

If police were finding guns more often, of course, that would also be counted as evidence of the program's success, so Bloomberg really can't lose with logic like this. Furthermore, he seems to have forgotten that, under the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio, police are supposedly stopping people based on "reasonable suspicion" that they are engaged in criminal activity, and the whole justification for frisking them is to protect officers and bystanders from hidden weapons. The reasonableness of New York cops' suspicions is open to question, since only 10 percent of last year's stops resulted in citations or arrests (including arrests for "public display" of marijuana, many of which were illegal). Although officers are supposed to frisk people only when there is "reasonable cause to believe that they might be armed," 56 percent of stops included pat-downs, which 98 percent of the time turned up no weapon of any kind. Now Bloomberg is suggesting that the stops, like the stops at sobriety checkpoints, are essentially random.

They are not really random, of course. As the NYCLU points out, they disproportionately involve blacks and Latinos:

In 70 out of 76 precincts, blacks and Latinos accounted for more than 50 percent of stops, and in 33 precincts they accounted for more than 90 percent of stops. In the 10 precincts with black and Latino populations of 14 percent or less (such as the 6th Precinct in Greenwich Village), black and Latino New Yorkers accounted for more than 70 percent of stops in six of those precincts.

Young black and Latino men were the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops. Though they account for only 4.7 percent of the city's population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6 percent of stops in 2011.

But Bloomberg's analogy to stops aimed at catching drunk drivers suggests that police have no real grounds—aside from race, age, and gender—to suspect these people are illegally armed or doing anything else criminal. The sobriety checkpoints upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990 involved suspicionless stops aimed at the special hazard posed by intoxicated drivers. The Court said police could briefly stop motorists and, if they noticed signs of intoxication, investigate further. It did not say police could randomly stop people to find illegal guns or detect crime in general. A decade later, in fact, the Court said "the general interest in crime control" could not justify such stops, which are considered "seizures" under the Fourth Amendment. As described by Bloomberg, the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program is justified not by individualized suspicion but by its general deterrent effect. It therefore appears to be unconstitutional under the relevant precedents.