Why The NRO Got “Stop and Frisk” Wrong

To his enormous credit, Kyle Smith concedes that the National Review got it wrong.

As of December 27, New York City saw 286 homicides in 2017, down 12 percent from the previous year, itself a near-record low. That is a rate of about 3 per 100,000 population. By contrast, Chicago’s homicide rate for 2017 was about 24 per 100,000. The figure for Baltimore is about 56. There were more murder victims in Baltimore than in New York City in 2017, even though New York has nearly 14 times as many residents.

These numbers are extraordinary. Back in the 1990s, the hope was to bring the number of murders below 2000 per year. Small fluctuations now will have out-sized impact on percentages, but in raw numbers, this is about as safe as it gets. And it happened without stop and frisk.

Stop-and-frisk was deployed in New York City some 686,000 times at the peak in 2011, dropped sharply in 2012–2013, the last couple of years of the Mike Bloomberg administration, and plummeted to 12,000 incidents in 2016, according to NYPD data tracked by the New York Civil Liberties Union. That’s about a 98 percent reduction in use of the tactic.

Over the years, the number of people stopped reached the millions. It stood to reason, from a safe distance, that this must have had an impact on crime. That’s the problem with reason from a distance. It can make complete sense and still be wrong.

Today in New York City, use of stop-and-frisk, which the department justified via the 1968 Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court ruling, has crashed. Yet the statistics are clear: Crime is lower than ever. It’s possible that crime would be even lower had stop-and-frisk been retained, but that’s moving the goalposts. I and others argued that crime would rise. Instead, it fell. We were wrong.

There are two mistakes in here. The first was one I wrote about. While the phrase, “stop and frisk,” seems to come from Terry, it’s a trick. The NYPD borrowed a phrase embodied in the law and bastardized it beyond repair.

If a police officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a person has, is or will engage in criminal conduct, he is authorized to stop and inquire. If the officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person stopped may be armed, he is authorized to conduct a pat down for weapons for his own protection. This is the state of the law. Even now, the apologia gets this wrong.

I was inclined to defer to the police when they protested that they needed the option to stop, question, and frisk New Yorkers on a mere reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing instead of probable cause that the targeted person had committed a crime. Restricting the tactic, I thought, would cause an uptick, maybe even a spike, in crime rates.

Law is hard. I appreciate that. But it’s not as if I haven’t explained this over and over, and it’s not as if you don’t have writers at NRO, lawyers, who are fully competent to read Terry and explain the law.

But the second error is the one that was likely far more significant in distorting your appreciation of the efficacy of stop and frisk. Cops weren’t stopping people because they had a suspicion. They were randomly tossing black and Hispanic kids.

It seeks to perpetuate the misunderstanding, popular with groundling conservatives, that neighborhoods of color are where the crime happens, and therefore it’s only “common sense” that the police should disproportionately stop and frisk black and Hispanics.  It’s not that the cops are targeting minorities, the argument goes, but that minorities commit all the crimes. It’s the Willie Sutton theory of law enforcement.

But that is not why the program was held unconstitutional, and the Times should be ashamed of itself for providing room for such drivel.  The split isn’t just a matter of whites and blacks, but innocent and people for whom a lawful justification to stop exists. Here’s the shocker: just because some teen is black or Hispanic doesn’t make him suspicious and, thus, subject to stop and frisk at will.

Perhaps it didn’t appear this way from listening to press conferences by mayors and police commissioners. For those of us who spend our time in the trenches, the official line wasn’t particularly convincing. For those kids walking to school getting stopped daily, sometimes a few times a day, for wearing their pants too loose or their baseball cap on backwards, or just breathing, it made their lives pretty awful. Nobody likes to be forced to lie face down on the pavement upon comment for the crime of being black and outdoors.

We knew it because the people we know, we represent, we hang out with, told us. And they told us the same thing day after day, for years. And when we went uptown (have you ever been uptown?), we saw it. You couldn’t see it from your distance, so you were forced to make a choice as to whether to believe what the brass told you at press conferences or what the kids on the street had to say. You chose the brass. That’s understandable, given your sensibilities.

But the numbers? When you toss millions of people, almost 90% of whom are just as innocent of any offense as your little darlings, something is terribly wrong. Either the cops really suck at what constitutes “reasonable and articulable suspicion” or it’s just bullshit words in the first place. And, as you now realize, it was just a big ol’ lie.

This is the latest in a series of rationalizations for cops being cops. Not to beat a dead horse, but there was dropsy, furtive gestures, and later stop and frisk. There is a theme that permeates these rationalizations: they all relied on blind trust of the police.

When you said you were “inclined to defer,” what you meant is that you chose to believe. A former president once offered wise words about believing. Trust, but verify. The numbers were always there for you to see. You could question the anecdotal evidence, doubt my word, but the numbers couldn’t be ignored. When the cops came up empty almost 90% of the time, while the vast majority of the people stopped were minorities, the tactic was a failure.

Now that it’s clear that Stop and Frisk, the tactic rather than the law, was nothing more than a palliative bust, I applaud you for acknowledging the error of supporting it. For the millions of black and Hispanic people who were thrown against walls, made to kiss the gutter, got their school clothes filthy by being forced to the ground, had their pockets turned inside out, were treated like captives in their own neighborhood, it comes too late.

They say “better late than never,” and I suppose that’s true. But I also suppose you could have done better. Being of a conservative bent does not mean ignoring the facts. Just as believing isn’t good enough for the other team, it’s not good enough for you either.

6 thoughts on “Why The NRO Got “Stop and Frisk” Wrong

  1. wilbur

    In the county wherein I toil, the number of felony arrests in 2017 was less than half of the number in 1990. I’m not sure of the reason(s) why, but one which can’t be ignored is that police departments have cracked way down on overtime for their POs.

    People universally respond to economic incentives.

    1. SHG Post author

      While I’m not sure whether you’re suggesting correlation or causation, I take issue with your “universally” assertion. Economic incentives sometimes work. Other times, not at all (no cop is going to take an unnecessary risk of death because of the risk of loss of overtime, for example). Pick your battles better.

  2. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I see no evidence that they stopped S&F or even reduced it. It does appear that they stopped reporting it.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        When I lived in Queens, I routinely saw young men getting “frisked” by the police. Such a nice word; it sounds so quick and painless, and maybe even fun. It’s almost as if the word is designed to mislead us.

        I continued to see this after it was reported that they had stopped using S&F. I don’t think it’s necessarily a secret, it’s just that nobody cares enough to report on it.

        But maybe I’m just seeing things (or not seeing them). Did you notice a significant reduction in the number of young men being “frisked” in your neighborhood?

        1. SHG Post author

          In my neighborhood? Nobody gets frisked in my neighborhood. But I don’t hear anywhere near as many complaints as I used to. There are still some, and some proper frisks (they’re not illegal if done according to Terry), but nowhere near the constant complaints I was hearing before.

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