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Janison: Stop-and-frisk controversy fading into history

NYPD shows three different simulated training scenarios of

NYPD shows three different simulated training scenarios of stop-question-frisk. (Charles Eckert) Credit: NYPD shows three different simulated training scenarios of stop-question-frisk. (Charles Eckert)

Say goodbye to stop and frisk as a political flashpoint in New York City.

The issue was well on its way to dissipating before Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday that the city agreed to reform “overuse” of the NYPD tactic. This had a twofold purpose: to settle a widely watched federal lawsuit and to fulfill a campaign promise.

By official accounts, the “stop” numbers were dropping anyway in the last two years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

During the same period, important violent crime totals continued declining.
If crime now rises at any point during the de Blasio administration, you can be sure new strategies will be announced. If stop-and-frisk believers have occasion to say “Aha, we told you,” the new regime at City Hall will undoubtedly argue that Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, were phasing down the practice anyway while crime declined.

The numbers — often underplayed in the political noise of recent months — are actually quite striking.

In 2013, the last year of the Bloomberg mayoralty, recorded stops totaled about 194,000, as Police Commissioner William Bratton announced two weeks ago. That was down from 533,042 in 2012, and from a record 684,000 in 2011, officials said. Two weeks ago, Bratton said, “Clearly it [the practice] is in decline and I believe that is a good thing.”

In 2013, when stops fell by 72 percent from two years earlier, the city also recorded a decline in homicides to 333 in all — down from 417 in 2012 and 502 in 2011.

There are armies of law-enforcement professionals across America dedicated to interpreting crime numbers and gauging the impact of policing strategies. Without hearing from all of them, it seems difficult to argue that any shift in tactics to ensure the Fourth Amendment rights of civilians will bring back, by itself, the storied blight of the 1970s.
Then again, determining what works against crime can be tricky. In the 1990s, New York City and San Diego proclaimed sharply different law-enforcement strategies but produced similar results. While police under Mayor Rudy Giuliani carried out arrests for small crimes in a “broken-windows” strategy, San Diego played up “community-oriented policing” and “problem-solving.”

Descriptions of “stop-and-frisk” can be tricky too — and de Blasio and Bratton have done a canny little dance around the words.

During the Democratic primary campaign, de Blasio broadcast an ad that called him “the only candidate to end a stop-and-frisk era that targets minorities.”
Read that carefully. It didn’t commit de Blasio to keeping police from searches based on suspicion. When appointed last month, Bratton said “Stop-and -frisk is essential to every police department in America” if done properly. Added de Blasio: “What we want to create is an environment where the stop-and-frisk era — stop-and-frisk as we knew it — ends.”

He hasn’t much mentioned that the “era” seemed to be finding its own end before he got there.

Dan Janison is a Newsday columnist

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