A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Time to stop and think on stop-and-frisk

It should be said that Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin is being vilified for her ruling that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program is unconstitutional. 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg swiftly charged that the judge had denied the city a fair trial and said he would make this accusation in the appeal. He and other critics have practically accused the judge of murder, saying her ruling could lead to increased violent crime.

At a news conference, he returned to the defense the city has used throughout: that the stop-and-frisk program reduced crime. Under this policy, police made 4.4 million stops over an eight-year period, more than 80 percent involving black and Hispanic people. (In 2.3 million of these cases, police frisked the individual.)  The mayor complained that the judge never mentioned in her ruling how much crime rates have dropped during his years in office.

The Daily News hyped this theme with a front page headlined “MURDER, SHE WROTE - Fear over Return to Bloody Old Bad Days,” with pictures of the judge and of a corpse being covered at a crime scene.

The mayor’s problem is that his effective public-relations strategy – using plunging crime rates to justify whatever the NYPD is doing – doesn’t work in court. As the judge wrote, the issue is whether stop-and-frisk is constitutional, not whether it is effective. Coercing confessions may be effective, she noted, but it’s illegal.

When it comes to PR, the mayor and his police commissioner are on strong ground. They have big PR staffs and ready access to the media. The judge doesn’t.

When it comes to the law, though, tthe city officials are on much weaker ground. The Fourth Amendment requires that stops be based on reasonable suspicion. The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids race-based suspicion.

Sheindlin’s incisive opinion lays out a detailed case that stop-and-frisk is riddled with race-based suspicion.  

In her decision, the judge gave great weight to the testimony of three police officers who were so fed up with the situation that they secretly recorded roll calls. The tapes reveal how mid-level police supervisors are pushed by their bosses to achieve a sufficient number of stops, no matter what.

Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, a key whistleblower whose story is told in a newly released book, recorded one roll call in which a sergeant urged the cops to make more stops so the precinct can come up with the expected number. It  requires filling out a Form UF-250. The judge quotes this in her ruling:

250, how hard is a 250. I’m not saying make it up but you can always articulate robbery, burglary, whatever the case may be. That’s paperwork … It’s still a number. It keeps the hounds off, I’ve been saying that for months.

Is the alternative to this type of policing total chaos? That is what Bloomberg wants the public to think. But the lawsuit did not ask for stop-and-frisk to be eliminated, nor does the judge suggest that. It just needs to be conducted within the bounds set by the Constitution, however inconvenient that might be.

To that end, the NYPD would do well to return to a more community-oriented policing it practiced in the early 1990s, when crime first began to drop. Officers with a good sense of the neighborhood will make better stops.

Stop-and-frisk was initiated around 1994 by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton as part of a strategy to get guns off the streets. Bratton, who took office with Mayor  Rudy Giuliani, scoffed at community policing as "social work." But since it had been in effect for a few years, the cops in the precincts knew their communities. That, combined with Bratton's innovations, made for some very good policing.

Later, the NYPD shifted to using task forces that flooded high-crime neighborhoods, a strategy aimed at reducing crime numbers. Police brass got the numbers they wanted, but at a high cost to police-community relations. Then they vastly increased stop-and-frisk during the Bloomberg administration, further alienating police and communities.

I don't think cops on the beat like this any more than the people in the communities they patrol do. Judge Scheindlin was right to appoint a monitor - not for the officers on patrol, but for the policymakers who push them into conducting unwarranted searches.




About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

The mayor should continue the policy of not putting lead into gasoline. That keeps lead out of the air and environment, which keeps it out of the bloodstreams of children, which prevents it from damaging their brains in ways that reduce IQs and increase the likelihood of criminal activity.



As always, Heather MacDonald is worth reading:


Jeffrey Fagan is also worth reading for some of his more candid admissions, before he became Judge Schendlin's favored expert witness:

"But this 'hit rate' analysis can be criticized as unfair to the police, who are 'damned if they do, damned if they don’t.'Relatively few of the stops of minorities led to arrests, and thus we conclude that police were more willing to stop minority group members with less reason. But we could also make the argument the other way around: Because a relatively high rate of whites stopped were arrested, we conclude that the police are biased against whites in the sense of arresting them too often."


And this:

"Our findings do not necessarily imply that the NYPD was acting in an unfair or racist manner, however.  It is quite reasonable to suppose that erfective policing requires stopping and questioning many people to gather information about any given crime."

For those keeping score at home the statistical model in use was based upon an overdispersed regression analysis.


Andrew Gelman on his early research with Fagan:

"It could well be that a statistical pattern of stops could arise from individual decisions that are not based on race but instead are based on characteristics that are correlated with race. I have no idea what the police are doing—my only experience here is with the numbers."


Thanks, Patrick, for highlighting McDonald's alarmist claptrap. I wonder what part of New York City she lives in. Or you. 

Editors - please note that a troll using the name of Grant Gallicho is active in this site.

The columnist you recommend says it may not be too early to look into relocation plans. Where do you think she'd be moving from? And why would you say such drivel is worth reading? 


In response to your strange question about which neighborhood Heather Mac Donald lives in, or where I live, I suggest you use your sleuthing abilities and a good GPS.  Your questions can be answered without too much difficulty.  The skills you develop in the process can be used in the future whenever you want to locate the source of what you consider claptrap and drivel.  And who knows, as you move around the city you might expand your mental horizons.  It's worth a try.


At the risk of incurring GG's scorn I'd suggest even more links to Mac Donald's work.  Unbelievable though it may be to GG, even the NYT has seen fit to publish her.  Of course the usual suspects in the usual publications have condemned her and she won't be cited favorably in these precincts anytime soon, so here's a sample of her work:


Back to the original post - Are there any large city police success stories where Judge Scheindlin and her statisticians would find the police not guilty of the charge of "indirect racial profiling?"  IMHO, given time and enough data points any good investigator or lawyer can present a case for the existence of indirect racial profiling in any big city, at least as Scheindlin interprets the data.  And how to devise procedures that are both effective and not vulnerable to the profiling charge remains a mystery.  Don't look to NYC courts or mayoral candidates for an answer.

Just finished my morning coffee watching last night's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart [recorded on TiVo because I can't stay awake that late anymore?!?].  Marvelous comedy send-up of the clueless reaction of most white folks to the banal so-called necessity of "stop and frisk" policies of the NYPD whose disproportionate scrutiny and burden falls on young men of color.

John Oliver (summer host for the DSwJS) and regular "correspondent" Jessica Williams [reporting from a high crime district of NYNY, Wall Street, the 'Harlem' Business district]  - exquisite choice to do this comedy bit because she is African American - were so brilliant in demonstrating the racism and perpetuation of stereotypes [the real origins of racial profiling] inherent in Bloomberg's policies that result in the roughing-up and abuse of young men of color.

If the police were molesting Bloomberg's buddies there on Wall Street [God knows, Bloomberg is certainly a creator of Wall Street], like they do African-Americans and Latinos, since all those white guys on the Street are the ones who sabotaged and wrecked the world economy, fit the profile of white collar criminals, all this "stop and frisk" nonsense would evaporate like water on hot griddle.

Regarding the MacDonald column ... the data show that relatively few of the stops police made were based on a description of a suspect - about 13 percent.  If it is a reasonably detailed description, that provides police with the constitutional basis to make the stop. But if the suspicion in the cases MacDonald cites extended to all young black men, that's not a reasonable basis for a search. That's racial profiling.

I've heard from my students at Brooklyn College what it's like to be stopped by police, over and over, for no apparent reason. It's nerve-wracking. It creates anger and distrust of the police. And I don't think most officers like doing this. That's why the bosses have to force them to do it.

Patrick Molloy: Stop and frisk makes rich white people feel good about living in a big bad city. But it makes poorer brown people feel racially profiled. Because they're being racially profiled. Sleep well.

I take it that Grant has made up his mind.  GG locutus est, causa finita est.  I accept his gracious wish that I sleep well.

In turn I can only wish him to have pleasant dreams.  May they provide a welcome relief for him for all the claptrap and drivel he has to put up with during his waking hours.


An interesting discussion from the New Yorker of the statistical issues that are likely to be contested in the future (until the new administration inherits the monitor mess):

"In explicitly basing at least part of her ruling on complicated statistical analyses that most ordinary jurors wouldn’t understand, Judge Scheindlin has raised anew the question of what sort of weight should be put on academic testimony in cases of this sort."


In the coming battle of experts this is wise advice: “One thing that experts know, and that non-experts do not, is that they know less than non-experts think they do.”


(It seems I've been misreading this whole discussion.)  Is the issue whether or not the police can stop some young black and Hispanic men even when there has been *no recent crime* reported in their area?

This is from today's NYT:

At another point, Judge Scheindlin noted that Mr. Kelly had said, according to a state senator who was present for the conversation, that young black and Hispanic men were the focus of the stops because the commissioner “wanted to instill fear in them, every time they leave their home, they could be stopped by the police.”

The fact is, police also stop whites.  What the judge is challenging the city to do is to make the basis for stopping minorities more in line with the basis for stopping whites.  The white stops, it should be noted, are far more likely to result in arresting people who are suspected of crimes.  Obviously, the police are using a more discerning set of criteria for those stops, a set of criteria that is focused on behavior and circumstances rather than skin tone.  The notion that every time you step out of your house you become a suspected criminal because your skin is dark and you live in a high crime area is just wrong (and the judge also found that skin color was actually a better predictor of being stopped than presence in a high crime area).  You're law abiding?  Well so were the vast majority of the black men who were stopped.  Their rights are just as important as yours.  If people are so perturbed by the prospect that equal treatment of people of color under law threatens their safety they should move. 

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment