Although my New York friends who have recently brought up the topic of increased city crime do not say they, family, or friends have been recent victims of crime, I have had one tell me that he has seen brazen shoplifting in a local CVS and that police, even when in the store, have done nothing about it. Others of us have been affected by such behavior whether we have witnessed it or not because more and more goods, at least at drug stores, have been put under lock and key making shopping for some everyday items more inconvenient. Although there has always been shoplifting, we now apparently have widespread organized shoplifting, or as it is called in some circles, “organized retail theft.” In the past an individual may have boosted Crest, a Kit Kat bar, or a six pack. They may have lifted the occasional watch for later pawning. But now teams are stealing in bulk to sell in bulk, often on websites, and this, not surprisingly, has caused concern in the retail sector. The manager of an affected store hit by organized shoplifting in downtown Brooklyn said in a news story that he thought that the cause for this crime wave was New York’s recently reformed bail law, which, according to him, had allowed the release of many repeat offenders.

The manager’s statement illustrates our desire for simple answers to increased crime. However, it is perhaps impossible to explain with certitude why criminal rates fluctuate. Organized shoplifting is not just a New York City problem. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently said, “Organized retail theft rates have spiked significantly in the past year, affecting communities across the nation.” The Buy Safe America Coalition says organized retail crime has hit hardest in places other than New York, listing Pennsylvania, Washington, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Delaware, Maine, Florida, Missouri, and Kansas. The cause of the shoplifting in these states is unlikely to be New York’s reformed bail laws. The widespread practice indicates that New York’s problem is part of a larger problem that stems from causes other than a change in New York legislation.

When my friend first told me about the drugstore shoplifting and the police inaction, he ascribed the cause to the defund-the-police movement. But that rallying cry got little traction in New York City and seems to have had no effect on the police budget. Even so, the organized shoplifting has continued. My friend no longer blamed that shoplifting on the defund movement. A simple supposed cause of increased crime seldom stands up to scrutiny.

Statistics, however, show that overall crime rates have increased in New York. Several friends have maintained that New York City’s abandonment of the stop- and-frisk policies is the reason. The goal of stop and frisk was to question people on the streets who were suspected of crimes and then confiscate the illegal guns they were carrying. This seemed logical. Fewer weapons on the street would lead inevitably to fewer violent crimes. If you sent those violent criminals to jail, then there would be fewer criminals on the street and therefore fewer crimes. Simple cause and effect, right?

Although the use of the police tactic had been increasing before, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg stop and frisk soared at the beginning of this century, and crime, including violent crime, declined. Working just like it was supposed to, right? Many people thought so then, and many continue to think so. However, the widespread use of stop and frisk ended with the Bloomberg mayoralty. The stops plummeted from almost 700,000 a year to fewer than 12,000 a few years later. And the crime rate? It continued to decline. Six years after the end of widespread stop and frisk, the murder rate in New York City was the lowest it had been in seventy years. So crime fell when stops increased and crime fell when stops decreased. That “obvious” cause and effect between widespread stop and frisk and lower crime rates turned out not to be so obvious.

Criminologists have conducted more sophisticated studies and analyses of stop and frisk instead of just looking at these gross numbers. Most found no effect on reduced crime rates, while a few studies found a modest crime reduction–modest to the tune of a fraction of a percent. These results are not particularly surprising in light of the fact that the stops did not remove many guns from the streets, the stated rationale for stop and frisk. A gun was found in about one in a thousand encounters. Five times as many illegal weapons were found through traditional policing, which declined when police were focusing on stop and frisk.

Mayor Bloomberg reported that the absence of recovered guns showed the policy worked. Because of stop and frisk, he said, New York criminals learned not to carry guns on the street. So, let’s see: If a lot of weapons had been seized, it would show that the police practice worked. If only a few weapons were seized, it showed that the police practice worked. Hmmmm.

(concluded September 26)

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