Safer By The Numbers

In a letter to the editor at Newsday, a good question is asked about stop & frisk under new NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton as opposed to stop & frisk under old Commissioner Ray Kelly:

According to the Newsday article “Kudos go to Kelly” [News, May 10], New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton says he is comfortable with the number of stop-and-frisk stops now.

The numbers in the article, however, make me wonder whether the NYPD is heading in the right direction: 14,261 stops in the first three months of 2014 led to arrests or summonses in 20 percent of the cases. That compares with 99,788 stops that led to arrests or summonses 10 percent of the time in the same period in 2013.

That means under Commissioner Ray Kelly, there were 9,979 “good” stops, versus 2,852 for the same period this year. Aren’t we safer with more good stops?

Sorry for the absence of a link to the original story, but it’s nowhere to be found.  Yet the letter raises a question of numbers and objective, ending in the question of whether more is safer. After all, last year there were 9,979 people arrested as a result of stops.  This year, a mere 2,852.  Assuming, as everyone does, that the number of people walking around New York City committing crimes is stable, that means over 7,100 criminals went uncaught.

So the answer, obviously, is yes, putting aside issues about whether people in possession of small amounts of marijuana is a safety issue at all.  But the worth of that answer depends on whether safety is the right metric, since we can’t know, by definition, what crimes went uncaught, even if we can fairly extrapolate from past experience.

Using the same numbers, over 89,000 people who did nothing wrong, who were committing no crime, were stopped under Kelly in the first quarter last year.  That means over 89,000 people had their right to be left alone, a right guaranteed by the Constitution, violated.  For some, it may have been relatively inconsequential. For others, not so much. And for some, it was humiliating and degrading, not to mention painful when their faces are forced into the filthy sidewalks of uptown Manhattan and a fat knee shoved into their back with the full weight of a cop behind it.

Was it worth it, to catch an additional 7,100 people for some crime, whether serious or trivial, to intrude on the lives of 89,000 people who did nothing wrong?  The answer, for most people, depends on whether they see themselves or their loved ones as part of the 89,000 victims of the police, or a victim of the 7,100 criminals.

Most readers here, being that it’s a self-selected group, will immediately see the trade-off as untenable.  But then, most people in general operate from a perspective of quasi-enlightened self-interest.  Since they don’t see themselves as likely victims of unwarranted police stops, and deem the potential of being victims of crimes more likely, they are more than happy to let the police stop an extra 89,000 innocents to get an extra 7,100 criminals.  To make the number more stark, they would feel the same if the spread was far wider.

It’s only a meaningful numbers game when you have numbers to pick from.  The real metric is that it’s safer to stop everyone, except the person asking the question, than let any criminal go free.  In fairness, there is also a perception based on the good guy curve, where they fail to see what the big deal of an unwarranted stop is. So, the cops ask a few questions, do a quick frisk, and, if you’re not a criminal, it’s over in five minutes and you go on your way. Is that really such a big deal, the good guy asks?

Frankly, few judges think so.  They don’t call this an arrest, though they play a constitutional rhetorical game by characterizing it as an investigative detention, which somehow makes a seizure feel less “seize-y,” but can just as easily be characterized as an arrest that produces no evidence of a crime, and so doesn’t end in prosecution.  Rarely will a judge call out the excuse, the furtive gesture, mysterious waistline bulge or aggressive glance, used to justify the seizure.  It’s not because the judge is a moron, but because the judge believes cops need to be granted a certain degree of latitude to do their jobs, and they can’t always be right.

No, they can’t always be right. Under Bill Bratton, the stops produced “good” results 20% of the time.  So that means more than 11,400 innocent people were hassled without any evidence of a crime.  And this, the questioner supposed, isn’t good enough.  This doesn’t mean we’re safe enough.  Others would see that number and ask how it’s possible that more than 11,400 innocent people were stopped in a society where each person has the right to go out in public, walk the street, have a happy day, without being seized.

If we’re going to ponder the metrics of safety, parse the numbers, then how about this: If there is any merit to the keen eye and skill of a police officer to identify a person walking down the street as a potential criminal whose freedom to be left alone is subject to interference, then the result of good stops should be over 50%.  After all, these aren’t random stops, coin tosses, but stops theoretically based upon a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.

If the cops can’t pick out people who are engaged in wrongdoing better than 50% of the time before interfering with their constitutional right to be left alone, then they aren’t entitled to the deference they’re given.  Or, as the perspective would be from someone who is in the group more likely to be stopped and less likely to value safety over all, stop & frisk has been reduced to less of a Comstat game under Bratton than it was under Kelly, leaving police to do a slightly better job of not seizing people for numbers, but still a game played to pander to the public misguided perception of safety and cavalier attitude toward the constitutional rights of others.

But then, the guy asking the question is sure it will never be his turn to be stopped, so what does he care?  And should it ever be his turn, he’ll realize that 11,400 people stopped for no good reason is outrageous, and a 20% effective rate still stinks.  But none of this matters if your only concern is your personal safety.

2 comments on “Safer By The Numbers

Comments are closed.