In 2001, then-former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told Time magazine that when his successor claimed responsibility for falling crime rates, it was “like trying to take credit for an eclipse.” More than a decade later, this same Ray Kelly, now in his second stint as NYPD commissioner, defends his over-the-top stop-and-frisk program as responsible for a plummeting murder rate. He would have us believe that stopping and frisking innocent New Yorkers millions of times over the past decade has saved 5,600 lives.
This is demonstrably false.
In fact, the city’s murder rate started dropping long before Kelly’s current tenure as commissioner, and there’s no evidence stop-and-frisk had anything to do with it.
There were 2,245 murders in 1990. By 2001, the year before Bloomberg hired Kelly, the number of murders had dropped to 649. That total fell to 587 in 2002, the year before the commissioner initiated his aggressive stop-and-frisk regime.
From 2003 to 2011, a period that saw a 600% increase in street stops (from 97,296 to 685,724), there’s been an average of 544 murders per year. That amounts to about 430 fewer murders since the commissioner took office — a far cry from his claim of 5,600 saved lives.
Sounds a little like taking credit for an eclipse.
The 11% drop in murders from the start of the Bloomberg administration in 2002 to 2011 is good news, but it pales in comparison to other large cities that do not rely on aggressive street stops. According to the FBI,murder rates plummeted in some of those cities far more than in New York: 50% in Los Angeles, 43% in Washington D.C. and 35% in Chicago.
The small number of arrests, summonses and guns recovered through street stops undercuts any claim that the program is an effective crime fighting tool. Of the 685,724 stops in 2011, 605,328 were of people engaged in no wrongdoing. Guns are recovered in less than 0.2% of stops — an astonishingly low yield rate for such an intrusive, humiliating and often unlawful tactic.
The term “stop-and-frisk” rolls off the tongue with such ease and frequency that we tend to forget the fact that a stop does not justify a frisk. To lawfully stop a person, a police officer must have reasonable suspicion the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit an unlawful act.
The commissioner contends that this happens only because officers go where the crime is. But last year, large percentages of blacks and Latinos were also stopped in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, where 77% of people stopped were black or Latino.
What’s more, “violent crime suspected” was a justification listed for only 10.5% of street stops in 2011. By far the most common reason listed was “furtive movement,” a catchall term that apparently applies to a wide assortment of innocent behavior.
Discriminatory policing corrodes trust between police and communities, making everyone less safe. But don’t take my word for it. Again, listen to the old Ray Kelly, this time in 2000: “[A] large reservoir of good will was under construction when I left the Police Department in 1994. It was called community policing. But it was quickly abandoned for tough-sounding rhetoric and dubious stop-and-frisk tactics that sowed new seeds of community distrust.”
Sadly, the commissioner has changed his tune.
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