Why crime has fallen from its historic highs in the late 1980s and early ’90s no one has been able to state definitively. Proponents of particular policies, whether “three strikes you’re out,” “broken windows,” or “stop-and-frisk,” will of course attribute those approaches, although there is just as much data—perhaps more—showing that none had a significant effect by itself. Moreover, they might have done more harm than good, resulting in disproportionately high incarceration rates among young men of color, stoking resentment and distrust in communities where they were disproportionately deployed, and trodding on Constitutional rights. Perhaps reductions in the use of lead paint and leaded gasoline, or the waning of the crack epidemic, or the spread of technology, or some mix of these and other factors, could help explain the safer environment many Americans now live in.
For it is, overall, safer—something that in Monday’s debate with Hillary Clinton (as has been the case throughout his campaign) Donald Trump would not acknowledge. Responding to a question on how to heal America’s racial divide, he insisted that his opponent’s answer lacked two important words: “law” and “order.” Of course, the pairing is no longer the dog-whistle it once was, since everyone can hear it loud and clear. The same could be said about Trump’s stated preference for “stop-and-frisk” as a way to counter a (nonexistent) spike in crime. He praised former New York mayor and current advisor Rudolph Giuliani while insisting stop-and-frisk was “tremendous beyond belief” in reducing violent crime in New York City, where it was perhaps most infamously deployed. But the data shows no such thing. At the height of its implementation in 2011, nearly 700,000 New Yorkers—90 percent of them African American or Latino—were stopped; 88 percent were innocent of any crime. The majority of those who were arrested were charged with nothing more than marijuana possession.
During the debate Trump also criticized current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for ending the practice, though in fact former mayor Michael Bloomberg, recognizing its problematic aspects, had already begun to curtail its use in 2012. He said de Blasio further failed in not challenging a federal judge’s ruling finding New York’s discriminatory implementation of the practice unconstitutional, thus leading to an increase in the city’s murder rate. This is untrue: Murders in New York have gone down even more since 2011, from 515, to 352 in 2015; this year the city is on track for even fewer.
Should we give Trump the benefit of the doubt?
Perhaps he was thinking of the recent FBI report showing an increase in the nation’s overall murder rate, which rose about 11 percent from 2014 to 2015. As Clinton said in the debate, even one murder is too many, and the numbers from Baltimore, Milwaukee, and particularly Chicago—which has twice the number of murders as Los Angeles and New York combined—are troubling. However, as criminologists note, it is important to consider these figures against the larger backdrop. The cities accounting for the largest share of the increase in murders together account for only 1 percent of the nation’s population. Further, that population has grown from 256 million in 1996 to 321 million today, yet the total number of murders has fallen by 20 percent over that time; additionally, crime overall in 2015 fell for the fourteenth consecutive year.
In the debate, Trump also took Clinton to task for her use of the term “superpredator” in the mid-1990s, a formulation of an unfortunate piece with the rhetoric of that time, and one she has since apologized for using. Trump, as on so many other matters, shows no such willingness to reconsider his own past statements or actions. These include spending $85,000 in 1989 on signed, full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for the execution of five male black and Latino teenagers (wrongly) convicted of and imprisoned for beating and raping a jogger in Central Park. DNA evidence helped exonerate them in 2002; it was also revealed their confessions were coerced, and, following a twelve-year legal battle with the New York City Police Department, the Central Park Five received a $41 million settlement. But Trump wouldn’t let it go, penning an op-ed in 2014 in which he called the settlement a disgrace and repeated an unnamed detective’s characterization of it as “the heist of the century.” “Settling doesn’t mean innocence,” he wrote. “These young men do not exactly have the past of angels.”
One of those young men, Raymond Santana (now forty-one), has since commented on Trump’s actions and his unwillingness to apologize. “It shows no compassion,” he told the Daily News. “This shows his character as a man—and he’s running for president.” While Trump could also be said not to have the past of angels, his present is little better. Adam Gopnik puts it bluntly in the New Yorker: Trump at the debate displayed “an underlying racism so pervasive that it can’t help express itself even when trying to pass as something else…. Stop-and-frisk isn’t just a form of policing for Trump; it’s a whole way of life.”