Unfinished Business

Does Overzealous Use of Stop & Frisk in NYC Explain Lower Crime Rates?

By Wally McElwain, a Spring 2012 Intern

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly support and advocate for stop-and-frisk policing, a strategy that authorizes police officers to randomly stop and frisk pedestrians without probable cause – despite concerns that the practice can lead to racial profiling.

In 2011, New York City police officers stopped a record 685,724 civilians. A report published by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that 87 percent of those stopped were African American and Latino. Arguably the most disturbing part of the NYCLU report was that NYPD officers stopped 168,126 Black men between the ages of 14 and 24, exceeding the total population of young Black men (158,406) living in New York City.

In addition to a disproportionate number of stops, the NYCLU report also found racial disparity in who police choose to search after stopping someone. More than 57 percent of those stopped and frisked by police were Black and Latino, compared to 44.2 percent for Whites. The report also revealed that a smaller percentage of Black and Latino stopped-and-frisked resulted in weapons charges than Whites.

Bloomberg and Kelly defend the controversial policy by pointing to New York’s declining murder and crime rates. However, there is little data has been provided as to how the stop-and-frisk strategy actually affects crime. The mayor and police commissioner commit a logical fallacy by asserting an unsupported correlation as a causal relationship.

Although sometimes very helpful for analyzing statistics and data, correlations don’t explain how, why, or if one event causes another. For example, ice cream sales increase as incidents of drowning increase. If someone only examined this correlation, it would lead to the comical conclusion that eating ice cream causes people to drown. The correlation misses that something else- in this case, weather- causes both of the events. Oftentimes no relationship exists in a correlation other than the events occurring at the same time.

Bloomberg and Kelly defend stop and frisk based solely on receding crime rates. I would venture to say that if crime rates rose, they would explain stop and frisk as an important strategy to keep crime rates from climbing even higher. Crime rates and stop and frisks could have nothing, something, or everything to do with one another. But it’s not sound policy-making to assert that there’s a causal relationship based solely on a correlation.

Crime is an extremely difficult topic to evaluate that all too often evades an easy answer. New York City public officials should be trying to find out what’s happening with crime instead of making blanket statements defending stop and frisks without offering any proof.