Simple Solutions to a Complex Crime Problem (concluded)

Studies of the widespread use of stop and frisk in New York conclude that it did little or nothing to decrease crime. Other studies, however, have shown that the practice increased distrust of the police. That is not surprising. In 1968, the Supreme Court held in Terry v. Ohio that a stop and frisk did not violate the Constitution, but the police could only stop someone if they had reasonable suspicion to believe that the person had committed or was about to commit a crime. Almost 700,000 times in one year police in effect maintained that they had such reasonable suspicion to stop someone. It is true that some were charged with an offense as a result of the encounters, but 87% of the time no charges were lodged, and the offenses that were charged were almost always for something minor, usually for possession of a small amount of drugs, most often marijuana. Almost no one was convicted for a violent offense or even a property crime because of widespread stop and frisk. And, of course, the notion that police had a reasonable suspicion that all the people stopped had committed a crime or were about to strains credulity, to put it politely. You can’t have reasonable suspicion that someone has a spliff in the pocket merely by seeing them on the street. As a result of widespread stop and frisk, many concluded that the police were widespread liars.

Even if a person is validly stopped, the Supreme Court standards say that the police may frisk—pat down the outer clothing—only if the officer reasonably believes that the stopped person has a weapon. In my experience in defending such cases, the cop would usually say that he saw a bulge in the clothing that he believed could be a gun. If during that frisk the officer feels something like a weapon, he may then search—reach inside the clothing—for the object. Remember again that only one in a thousand times did the police find a weapon. How often, then, did an officer truly reasonably believe there was a gun? And in all the cases, the person stopped felt violated. Is anyone surprised that widespread stop and frisk produced distrust of the police?

Those who were stopped learned to distrust the police. And who were they? Out of proportion they were young, nonwhite males. Even controlling for estimates for “crime participation” by race, Blacks and Latinos were stopped more than other groups. In one year, the number of stops of 14- to 24-year-old Black men exceeded New York City’s population of young Black men. A wide swath of New Yorkers could not peacefully walk down the street without a fear that they would be physically accosted by men with badges and guns. It is not too harsh to say that New York had a modern version of an antebellum slave patrol.

And yet even though most studies of the stop-and-frisk policies of fifteen years conclude that the practice was ineffective, and even though the practice produced distrust of the police, some want it reinstituted because they fear crime has increased. They want this even though murders and shootings, already low by historical standards, have decreased recently in New York. (Or as I like to put it, murders, which increased during Trump’s presidency, have begun to decline.) As is often the case, fear triumphs over rationality.

The Supreme Court has introduced a new twist for those who want to reinstitute the discredited stop-and-frisk practices. When the policy was widespread, few people in New York could legitimately carry a concealed gun in public, because New York State had strict gun control laws. However, the Supreme Court ruled this year that those laws violated the Second Amendment. New Yorkers, so saith the Supreme Court, have a constitutional right to be armed on Broadway now, and the seizure of those few guns that police found in stop and frisks of the past cannot be so readily seized today.

New Yorkers have always had legitimate concerns about crime. But whatever that concern is or should be, simplistic solutions to crime are almost never the answer.