Don’t Stop Stop-and-Frisk

The good old days were not always so good.

Take New York City’s murder rate, for example. In 1990, the city recorded 2,245 homicides; in 2012 the NYPD reported only 412, the lowest ever recorded in the department’s history. And it’s not only the number of homicides that have taken a jaw-dropping nosedive, but assaults, robbery, shootings are all way lower than they have been in the last 50 years. New York City is now the safest city among the nation’s 10 largest, an incredible accomplishment after an era when the reaction of New Yorkers to the piercing wail of car alarms was to shut the windows, when squeegee men had more rights than law-abiding citizens.

A lot of the credit to having the city avoid the crime-riddled fate of Detroit, for evolving from a metropolis gripped with fear to one where it’s now safe to walk in almost any neighborhood has to go to the NYPD and their adoption of stop-and-frisk. Stop-and-frisk allows the NYPD to question anyone it has reasonable reason to believe is about to commit a misdemeanor or felony. If there is suspicion that the person is carrying a weapon, then the law also permits a police officer to frisk the individual.

Now, a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights against stop-and-frisk threatens to take New York back to the not-so-good-old-days of the 1970s and 1980s. The lawsuit charges that the NYPD has unconstitutionally infringed on the rights of millions of New Yorkers. But that charge is wrong. The Supreme Court ruled 44 years ago, in Terry vs. Ohio, that the police have every right to stop someone if there is reasonable suspicion that that person will commit a crime.

Sure, it hasn’t only been stop-and-frisk that has been a crime killer: the vigorous policing of misdemeanors, an initiative borne out of the “broken window” theory of policing; the NYPD implementation of CompStat, the use of statistics to analyze patterns of where policing is most necessary; and more cops on the street — all have been an effective part of the arsenal in the fight against crime.

But we wouldn’t have witnessed the dramatic plummet — a more dramatic drop in crime than any other large city — had it not been for stop-and-frisk. Other cities that have used New York’s playbook sans stop-and-frisk to fight crime have not been nearly as successful. Chicago has five million fewer residents than New York, but had more murders in 2012 than New York.

The lawsuit is now before Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, who so far has given every indication she will overturn the NYPD’s right to stop-and-frisk. She wrote that there is “more than enough proof that a large number of people have been improperly stopped as a result of NYPD practices.” Should she decide to do this, it won’t be only the ACLU who will celebrate, but also the criminals who will be happy that the good old days are here again.