While NYPD stop-and-frisk activity last year in many police precincts fell off the chart and virtually disappeared in some areas, crime increases weren't as dramatic as some criminologists suspected they could be.
A Newsday analysis of each precinct's stop-and-frisk activity in 2012 compared with 2011 showed the vast majority -- 90 percent -- saw large declines as the number of serious crimes in the city edged up about 4 percent.
But with homicides declining last year to a record low, and crime increases not up too sharply in most areas, the decline in stop and frisks -- which amounted to as much as 46 percent in some traditionally high-crime areas of Brooklyn -- didn't seem to have a major impact on the level of serious felonies, such as burglaries, robberies and felony assaults, experts said.
"It is telling," said Professor Eugene O'Donnell of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It [stop and frisk] is not being done, with not a lot of the sky falling and big increases in crime."
O'Donnell and others said the initial fear was things would quickly get out of control as stop and frisk declined but that the data indicate that didn't occur -- at least not for now.
"So far, so safe," he said.
But how long that safe trend continues if stop and frisk further declines is not clear, said Professor Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who has studied the activity.
"The reduction in police stops is only a year long," Rosenfeld noted. "It may have been unrealistic to expect catastrophic major crime increase in such a decline in police stops. Over time those crimes may increase."
From a high of 684,330 stops in 2011, the NYPD officers pulled back and did 533,042 in 2012, a drop of 22 percent. Of those stopped last year, 84 percent were black or Hispanic, a percentage that has remained constant. A trial is under way in federal court in Manhattan, trying to determine if the NYPD has illegally targeted blacks and Hispanics for street stops.
Getting a handle on whether stops affect crime rates is difficult. Few studies have been done. One analysis found that stop and frisk, which is done when officers believe they have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or may be under way, impacted the burglary and robbery rate while another found "few significant effects on those crimes."
Professor Franklin Zimring, in his book "The City That Became Safe," concluded that stop and frisks were in part responsible for the city's historic crime decline. But data also suggest that there wasn't a "sensitive" link between crime rates and changes in stops, he noted. On the other hand, Zimring, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, said there may be some kind of "real relationship" between the two.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne didn't challenge Zimring's views. But Browne noted that stops are part of a police strategy involving hot spot policing and a new street gang offensive, which have contributed to a drop in homicides and shootings.
One crime up sharply in many precincts last year was grand larceny, driven mostly by identity theft and iPhone theft, two offenses that can't be easily targeted by street officers, Browne said.
Of the 69 police precincts where stops went down in 2012, about 66 percent saw serious crimes go up. But the increases didn't closely track the size of the decline in stops, the data showed. The city has a total of 76 police precincts.
"Even though recorded stops have been declining over the year, it doesn't mean police have abandoned an area," Rosenfeld said.
It may be wise, said Rosenfeld, to keep a cautious eye on things for the long term if stops continue to slide.
Controversy over stop and frisks is a focal point of the upcoming mayoral campaign. The NYPD insists it is one of a number of tools that have helped drive crime down. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was more emphatic, saying the stops have taken guns off the street and cut the murder rate, and that he vowed to continue them.
Some Democrats want stop and frisk abolished. However, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, vying to be the party standard-bearer, thinks it is a useful tool but one that has been overused. Precinct commanders should have more say, he said.
"You stop and frisk only when they [commanders] think it is needed," de Blasio said recently.
Democratic mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn has also said stop and frisk was a useful tool but questioned the impact on minority communities.