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Apologists For Bloomberg’s Stop-And-Frisk Make A Compelling Case Against It

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As I’ve noted several times, the best argument against the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act is the remarkably poor quality of the arguments defending it (including the opinion itself.) The same is true of people criticizing yesterday’s decision holding New York’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional. You could start with Heather Macdonald, who for all intents and purposes doesn’t have any argument at all — there’s nothing there but an assumption that arbitrary police tactics must be good for public safety, and to complete the tautology an assumption that any police tactic that is effective must therefore be constitutional. “If the monitor adopts Judge Scheindlin’s definition of unconstitutional policing, it is not too soon to start looking into relocation plans.” Scary! But you’ll wait in vain for any evidence that the tactics have played any role in New York’s declining crime rate.

A slightly more detailed apologia comes from neo-neocon. Let’s start with the unintentionally revealing title:

How many crime victims must be sacrificed at the alter of fuzzy math?

The phrase “fuzzy math,” most of you will recall, entered the lexicon during the first Bush/Gore debate. Gore made an unassailably accurate criticism of Bush’s budget plan; Bush, having no response on the merits, responded with his “fuzzy math” non-denial denial. So Ms. Con is, it must be admitted, using the phrase correctly.

But law by statistics is a dangerous game.

Of course most people stopped are innocent…

Of course! This is quite remarkable. Why on earth would we expect 9 out of 10 people stopped and frisked by the police to be entirely innocent of wrongdoing, and an even higher percentage not to be guilty of what they were suspected of? How “reasonable” can searches that prove to be unfounded more than 90% of the time possibly be? Doesn’t this data seem important?

but this does not tell us why they were stopped and whether those reasons constituted “reasonable suspicion” or not, which are the important issues. It merely tells us that stop-and-frisk is a highly imperfect instrument for locating criminals.

Well, yes, the percentage of unfounded searches does not, in and of itself tell us why the searches were conducted. As you’ll know if you read the opinion, however, Scheindlin’s analysis doesn’t stop there. As I explain in my Prospect piece, the data used in the opinion also studies the forms officers submitted that explain their basis for performing a stop-and-frisk. At least 200,000 of these searches lacked any constitutional justification, and more than half of stop-and-frisks cited “furtive movements,” a factor functionally indistinguishable from a random hunch. The more fine-grained analysis, therefore, confirms the obvious inference to be drawn from the overall data — far too many of these searches are not based on the reasonable suspicion required by the Fourth Amendment.

Nor does it tell us what the relationship of New York’s stop-and-frisk has been to the decline in crime experienced by that city. Is it causative, or is the drop merely another instance of a more general drop in crime during the same period that has occurred even in jurisdictions that don’t practice the sort of tactics employed by the NYPD?

Good question! But I’m afraid that if you’re asking me to wink at the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, the burden of proof isn’t on me to prove that the program isn’t effective. What reason is there to believe that it is effective?

Even compared with other cities where crime has also declined, New York has experienced dramatic changes. Since 2002, major crimes across the country have declined fourteen per cent; in New York, they have declined thirty-four per cent. The contrast is even more striking between New York and other big cities. If New York had Detroit’s murder rate last year, there would have been forty-five hundred murders in the city–more than ten times the actual number.

Right. Since Detroit is entirely comparable to New York City in terms of wealth, education, quantity and quality of police officers, and population density, clearly the only reason that New York City could have a lower murder rate than Detroit is because of the use of arbitrary stop-and-frisk searches! Even though the decline in New York’s crime rates began well before stop-and-frisk and continued even as stop-and-frisk searches declined. If this is the best argument in favor of the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk, I think I’ll stick to actually enforcing the Constitution, thanks.

Both columns are also excellent examples of Adam’s point. There’s no serious attempt to defend the constitutionality of the program; it’s just an argument that when it comes to public safety the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments are a luxury we can’t afford. It’s an argument that’s wrong on both ends.

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