Thinking Through Stop-And-Frisk

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 14 2013 @ 1:10pm

Stop Frisk Outcomes

Heather Mac Donald defends stop-and-frisk’s racial disparities:

[T]hough whites and Asians commit less than 1 percent of violent crime in the 88th Precinct and less than 6 percent of all crime, according to [Judge] Scheindlin 40 percent of all stops should be of whites and Asians, to match their representation in the local population.

Never mind that the suspect descriptions that [Officer Edgar Gonzalez of Brooklyn’s 88th Precinct] was working off of gave blacks and Hispanics as robbery, burglary and shooting suspects. To avoid an accusation of racial profiling, he should have stopped whites and Asians for crimes committed — according to their victims — exclusively by blacks and Hispanics.

That helps us focus on the real issue here: to what extent is the disproportionate racial imbalance in “stop-and-frisk” a legitimate by-product of fighting crime? What metric do you judge it by? The proportion of criminals who are black and Hispanic? The proportion of innocent people who are black and Hispanic? Or some more complex metric? Dylan Matthews complicates Mac Donald’s argument:

The Bloomberg administration says that it’s focusing stops on areas with lots of crime. But [Jeffrey Fagan, a criminologist at Columbia Law School] found that even if you control for the crime rate, the racial makeup of a precinct is a good predictor of the number of stops.

“The percent Black population and the percent Hispanic population predict higher numbers of stops, controlling for the local crime rate and the social and economic characteristics of the precinct,” Fagan’s report explains. “The crime rate is significant as well, so the identification of the race effects suggests that racial composition has a marginal influence on stops, over and above the unique contributions of crime.”

Cassidy adds:

Fagan’s analysis also showed that blacks and Hispanics, once they had been stopped, were more likely to be subjected to the use of force, even though the probability of the stop resulting in further action—like an arrest, or a summons—was actually lower in cases involving minorities than in those involving whites.

That, to me, gets at another core question: how on earth do the human beings tasked with this job not fall into racial profiling and not get hardened in ways that mean more cop violence in minority neighborhoods? You don’t have to believe cops are racist to see that stop-and-frisk by its very nature will often lead to abuse, unless countered by almost super-human virtue. The test for me is whether black and Hispanic citizens who live in high crime neighborhoods believe the trade-off is worth it. And the answer to that is mixed:

Black voters disapprove of stop and frisk 69 – 25 percent while approval is 57 – 37 percent among white voters and 53 – 45 percent among Hispanic voters, the independent Quinnipiac University poll finds …  A decrease in police use of stop and frisk would not lead to an increase in gun violence, voters say 50 – 41 percent, again with significant racial division. Black voters say 63 – 28 percent the reductions would not lead to more crime. White voters believe it would 49 – 39 percent and Hispanic voters agree 52 – 46 percent.

Robert VerBruggen offers another point:

[I]f police are targeting minorities for stop-and-frisk above and beyond their likelihood of being involved in a crime, we might expect searches of minorities to be less likely to uncover concrete evidence of criminal activity. We do see this to some extent: Whites were carrying weapons 1.9 percent of the time; the number for blacks was 1.1, Hispanics, 1.3. For “contraband other than weapons,” the numbers are 2.3 percent for whites, 1.8 percent for blacks, and 1.7 percent for Hispanics.

However, Mayor Bloomberg has said he’s specifically targeting guns, and on that front the trend runs in the opposite direction: 0.16 percent of stopped blacks were carrying guns, as compared with 0.07 percent of whites and 0.09 percent of Hispanics.

Weak. If whites are more likely to be carrying contraband and weapons, the disparity in gun-carrying does not seem to me to be enough to justify the huge racial imbalance in overall stop-and-frisk. And the experience of feeling racially profiled routinely by cops – whatever the actual motivation – is a huge social and constitutional issue. No minority group should feel as if the law is designed to target them because of their race. That cost is real – in political, social and human terms. And the huge escalation of stop-and-frisk in the last decade – long after the biggest drops in crime – suggests we are veering toward something close to a police state in some areas.

Time to recalibrate – as the polling for race for mayor seems to indicate.

(Chart from Mother Jones)