The stark reality of stop-and-frisk
The presidential run of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg may well turn out to be a flash in the pan. But attacks on Bloomberg focusing on the stop-and-frisk policies he oversaw and defended as mayor have again brought the spotlight on contentious issues of crime, law enforcement and race. And the result is the latest reminder that those issues are far more complicated than current discourse generally admits.
Stop-and-frisk, a police tactic widely practiced in New York City from 2003 to 2013 — detaining civilians for questioning on vaguely defined “reasonable suspicion” and searching them for weapons or drugs — came under fire for use of racial profiling (and was dramatically scaled down due to court rulings). Some 90 percent of those detained were African-American or Hispanic males. In the vast majority of cases, the searches yielded no drugs or guns.
Recently revealed comments by Bloomberg, made at a 2015 conference, defended the practice by pointing to the demographics of crime: “Put those cops where the crime is, which means in minority neighborhoods.” Bloomberg asserted that “95 percent of … murderers and murder victims” in virtually every large city are “male, minorities, 16 to 25.”
Political poison? Not quite: after those remarks were publicized, Bloomberg’s support among black Democratic primary voters actually rose slightly in one poll, from 16 percent to 20 percent (though remaining far behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders).
Bloomberg has now apologized for stop-and-frisk and stressed reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But the seeming lack of African-American backlash in the polls against his past defense of the program may also attest to the fact that many black Americans are supportive of tough anti-crime measures and are less concerned about police racism than white liberals.
The uncomfortable truth is that Bloomberg’s observations about crime demographics in New York City are factual. Police data from 2018 show that about 73 percent of both shooting victims and shooting suspects in New York were black, while about 23 percent of victims and suspects were Hispanic.
This does not justify stop-and-frisk, an authoritarian policy that caused innocent people to be harassed and manhandled by cops — a situation that, especially when coupled with racial profiling, drastically undermines trust in police. Contrary to doomsaying by stop-and-frisk defenders like conservative pundit Heather Mac Donald, the policy’s reversal did not lead to a crime surge. (Ironically, the doomsayers once included President Donald Trump, who recently assailed Bloomberg as racist but wrongly claimed in 2016 that homicides in New York rose after stop-and-frisk was largely abandoned.) Criminologist Jeffrey Fagan has found that police stops do reduce crime — but only if stricter probable-cause standards are used, not just “hunches.”
But it is also true that denouncing law-and-order policies as a mere smoke screen for racism, as many progressives have done in recent years, is both inaccurate and counterproductive. Polls from Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as mayor in the 1990s show that, while his approval ratings overall were considerably lower among black and Hispanic New Yorkers than among white residents, blacks and Hispanics still gave him high marks on handling crime. The 1994 crime bill, which Biden has been criticized for backing, was also endorsed by most black lawmakers. Even today, Vox, a progressive publication, reports that one common complaint from African Americans about policing is too little police in black neighborhoods.
The right to be safe from police abuse is important. But civil libertarians should not forget that the right to be safe from crime matters, too.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.