Is the NYPD's 'Stop and Frisk' Program Effective? Does It Matter?


In my column today, I note that President Obama, judging from his high praise for New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, does not seem troubled by the racially disproportionate impact of the NYPD's "stop and frisk" program. Kelly defends the program partly by arguing that blacks and Hispanics are its primary beneficiaries as well as its primary targets. Writing at StoptheDrugWar.org's blog, Dave Borden points out that even policing sincerely aimed at stopping violent crime in poor neighborhoods can end up generating arrests for trivial offenses such as marijuana possession, perpetuating the racially skewed results of drug law enforcement. That is in fact what seems to have happened in New York, as I mention in my column. Borden also questions Kelly's claim that stop-and-frisk tactics are effective, noting that University of California at Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring, author of the 2001 book The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, believes the value of "aggressive arrests and stops" is "not known." Zimring is more inclined to credit factors such as increased manpower and CompStat mapping of crime "hot spots."

The debate about the effectiveness of New York's stop-and-frisk program is interesting, but it should not be dispositive. For that matter, the demograpic profile of the people who are usually hassled by the cops, while it certainly should bother anyone who claims to be concerned about racial profiling or the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection, is not the most decisive argument against stop and frisk, which is the Fourth Amendment. As Mike Riggs noted yesterday, Kelly seems to think everyone detained by the cops must be guilty of something. "The notion anyone stopped has done absolutely nothing wrong is not really the case," he said on MSNBC's Morning Joe, because police "need reasonable suspicion to stop someone and question them." Kelly not only confuses reasonable suspicion with guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; he assumes his cops really do have a sound legal basis for every stop they make and every pat-down they perform. That assumption is hard to credit, given that stops result in an arrest or summons only 12 percent of the time and pat-downs almost never discover guns. If the stop-and-frisk program is unconstitutional, as it appears to be, its putative effectiveness does not make it less so.