The New York City Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” policy has very likely contributed to the continued drop in the city’s crime rate, but the program has expanded too far in recent years. According to a decision issued this week by U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, “street stops” by city police amounted to about 150,000 a year in 1998 and went up to 313,000 annually by 2004. “Since then,” she wrote, “the number has increased every year except 2007, rising to over 684,000 in 2011,” and the city is on track this year to exceed the 2011 number.
Scheindlin granted class-action status to a lawsuit alleging the practice violates the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which, respectively, protect against unreasonable searches and guarantee “equal protection of the laws.”
The latter provision is the basis for the racial aspect of the lawsuit which, according to an Associated Press story, “alleged that the police department purposefully engaged in a widespread practice of concentrating its stop-and-frisk activity on black and Hispanic neighborhoods based on their racial composition rather than legitimate non-racial factors.” While there are real racial concerns to be addressed, and the police did indeed concentrate on majority-minority neighborhoods, the allegation is not credible because the obvious, legitimate reason for the police concentration is the relatively higher crime rates in those neighborhoods.
Still, the more the program expands, the more innocent citizens will be stopped and searched; and most of the city’s drop in crime occurred before the recent expansions of stop-and-frisk. As Scheindlin demonstrates, there is a centralized Police Department policy using quotas to get officers to make more stops. That policy should be changed, reducing the stop numbers to more reasonable levels.
There is a similar ongoing controversy regarding the department’s surveillance of Muslims in the years since the 9/11 attacks. Critics contend that these tactics, too, are unconstitutional. And the city’s defense in the court of public opinion amounts to effectiveness — that the surveillance has helped prevent further destructive attacks.
There are legitimate concerns about the treatment of Muslims by federal authorities since 9/11, regarding the sting operations by the FBI and U.S. attorneys’ offices in which previously law-abiding people are essentially lured into fictitious terrorist plots. One of those cases in Albany resulted in the 2006 conviction of two men, Yassin Aref and Mohammad Hossain, who remain serving 15-year sentences in federal prison. In that case and others, critics are right to be skeptical that justice was served.
But the NYPD was not inventing crimes. It was trying to prevent them, whether by street criminals or terrorists. Stop-and-frisk is not the main reason for the steep fall in the city’s crime rate since 1990 — after a huge rise in crime in the previous three decades — but more effective police tactics were undoubtedly important and beneficial. And police should probably get some credit for the absence of new terrorist attacks. Yet they must observe reasonable limits, which means the NYPD should scale back the stop-and-frisk program.