Criminologists have yet to come up with a definitive explanation for the dramatic decline in crime rates in the United States since the early 1990s. Theories include changing demographics, “Broken Windows” and “hot-spot policing” practices, and lifesaving medical advances that have lowered homicide rates.
While academicians and statisticians continue to argue about the drop in crime rates, New York City thinks it has found the answer: Widespread implementation of its aggressive “stop and frisk” policy. A debate about that practice has emerged, with Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD in one corner, and a number of civil rights groups in the other.
Everyone agrees that New York City is much safer than it used to be. Homicide rates, for example, are the lowest the city has seen since it began keeping records in 1963. “Around 1960, New York City basically stopped policing,” says William Bratton, who served as police commissioner for the NYPD from 1994 to 1996. Under Bratton’s leadership, law enforcement made a dramatic change: Instead of simply responding to crime, police began taking strong measures to prevent it.
Bratton introduced “hot-spot policing,” a data-driven approach that directs police resources to crime-prone areas. And police officers were encouraged to make “Terry stops”—searching individuals whose conduct suggests they may be involved in criminal activity, even when probable cause is absent. The name comes from a 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio, which established a lower threshold for legally searching a citizen for contraband or weapons.
In 2004, after complaints from civil rights groups that too many minorities were being subjected to searches, New York City took two steps to protect its citizens during “Terry stops.” The NYPD agreed to provide additional training for officers, and it instituted a stop-and-frisk form, UF-250, that officers fill out to explain why a suspect was stopped: a suspicious bulge in clothing, for example, or a refusal to comply with an officer’s directions. Despite the changes, complaints continued, and civil rights groups have filed a class-action lawsuit, Floyd v. City of New York. Soon Judge Shira Scheindlin will decide whether “Terry stops” violate New Yorkers’ constitutional rights.
One problem concerns the grounds for searches. Jeffrey Fagan, a criminologist and professor of law at Columbia University, argues that many searches are triggered by vague claims about “furtive movements.” In a study of the four million UF-250 forms filled out since 2004, the box for “furtive movements” was checked in more than half the forms. Very few of those stops led to arrests (six percent), seizures of contraband (two percent), or seizures of guns (one-tenth of one percent).
“You reasonably suspect something and you’re wrong 90 percent of the time,” commented Judge Scheindlin during the trial. “That is a lot of misjudgment of suspicion.” New York City responded to the charges by tightening the requirements for a behavior-based search: Now officers must provide narrative details when they fill out their paperwork. As a result, stop-and-frisk searches have dropped by more than fifty percent. Crime rates have continued to decline despite the new restrictions on police.
Another complaint centers on racial profiling, and on this issue New York City has stood firm, noting that most members of the NYPD are minorities themselves. Celeste Koelveld, an attorney who is defending the NYPD against the charges, says, “It’s close to a perfect correlation between who is committing crime and who is being stopped.” She believes that Terry stops are helping to protect New York’s minorities. In a speech to a civil rights group, she gave some sobering statistics about New York crime victims. African-Americans made up 64 percent of the murder victims and 71 percent of the shooting victims. Only four percent of the city’s population falls into the category of young black males, but that group comprises 40 percent of its murder victims. Eighty-two percent of those young black men were killed with a firearm.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly supports New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy. While it’s true, he says, that Hispanics and blacks constitute 85 percent of the citizens who are stopped, that figure accurately reflects actual crime rates in the city. In fact, he says, police should be stopping more minorities.
But observers are asking what effect this racial profiling is having on minority communities in New York City. Statistics show that the stop-and-frisk rate for young males between 14 and 24 years old is an astonishing 106 percent. Virtually every young black male is stopped and searched by the police at some point—laying the groundwork, some say, for serious problems in future years.
Political commentator John McWhorter says, “The situation that we have with stop-and-frisk in New York City: I couldn’t think of a better way to turn one generation after another of brown and black boys against the country that they live in. And I’m convinced that if we could have one generation of young brown men who didn’t grow up feeling that way about law enforcement, we really would be in a different country.” Critics also point to a study by the city’s own Public Advocate showing that stops of white people were twice as likely to yield a weapon and a third more likely to yield some form of contraband.
As New York City awaits Judge Scheindlin’s verdict, some observers are calling for changes in police practices. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, sums up the problem: “But perhaps the most compelling fact is that since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, nearly nine-tenths of more than 5 million police stops were of completely innocent people. That is some truly troubling math.”
Rosa Squillacote, policy advocate for Urban Justice, believes that stop-and-frisk policies are counterproductive. “A far better way to improve relationships between communities (particularly communities of color) and the police would be to implement community-based policing models where officers focus on developing collaborative relationships with community members to address local problems,” she says.
In New Jersey, a short distance from New York City, another police department is already making changes. The City Council in Newark recently overhauled the city’s stop-and-frisk program to increase accountability and prevent abuses. Data for “Terry searches” in Newark will be tracked, analyzed, and made public.
Meanwhile all eyes are on Judge Scheindlin, who will also be handing down a decision on Ligon v. City of New York. This lawsuit focuses on New York’s Under Operation Clean Halls program, which allows landlords to give police advance permission to search their property. Law enforcement agencies across the US will be awaiting Judge Scheindlin’s rulings about both cases.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.