Reassessing Stop, Question, and Frisk

Before former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg threw his hat into the 2020 presidential race, he defended the New York Police Department’s use of “stop, question, and frisk” policing.

At a U.S. Naval Academy’s 2019 Leadership Conference, Bloomberg said: “We focused on keeping kids from going through the correctional system … kids who walked around looking like they might have a gun, remove the gun from their pockets and stop it.”

He claimed that as a result of his policy, New York’s murder rate fell from 650 a year to 300 the year he left office.

In the cases of Terry v. Ohio, Sibron v. New York, and Peters v. New York, the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1968, granted limited approval to officers to stop, question, and frisk, even though they lacked probable cause for an arrest, if the officer believed the subject to be dangerous.

The high court’s decision made suspicion of danger to an officer grounds for a “reasonable search.”

The stop, question, and frisk policy has taken on racial overtones because most of the people stopped are black men. Let’s look at the numbers.

Last year, NYPD data showed that 93% of suspects arrested for murder were black or Hispanic. Ninety-six percent of those nabbed for shootings were also minorities. Eighty-eight percent of New York City’s homicide victims were black or Hispanic, as were 96% of shooting victims.

Although these percentages have been roughly the same for decades, New York police have brought the absolute number of crimes, including homicides, way down from its 1990 peak at 2,245 to 289 homicides in 2018.

Since blacks and Hispanics are the major victims of homicide, as a result of the NYPD’s proactive response to crime, possibly tens of thousands of blacks are living today who otherwise would be dead.

For a law-abiding black person to be stopped, questioned, and frisked—in a word or two, be racially profiled—is truly insulting. However, to analyze the policy, let’s look at the origins of racial profiling or any other kind of profiling.

First of all, police officers are neither mind readers nor are they equipped with X-ray vision. That means good policing requires learning how to use an easily observed physical characteristic as a guess or proxy for some other difficult-to-observe characteristic.

Thus, the reason officials profile is that information is costly and they seek methods to economize on information costs. One way to do that is through profiling.

The reality is that race and other behavioral characteristics are correlated, including criminal behavior. That fact does not dispel the insult, embarrassment, anger, and hurt a law-abiding black person might feel when being stopped by police, being watched in stores, being passed by taxi drivers, standing at traffic lights, hearing car door locks activated, or being refused delivery by merchants who fear for their safety in the black person’s neighborhood.

Bloomberg is a politician in pursuit of his own agenda. President Donald Trump is also a politician in pursuit of his own agenda. Both will deny their support for and talk down the policy of stop, question, and frisk in an effort to curry favor with black voters.

Most Bloomberg and Trump supporters don’t live under the horrible conditions that so many blacks live under in high-crime cities like Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit. Black people must ask what needs to be done to stop criminals from preying on them and making so many of their communities economic wastelands.

If stop, question, and frisk can contribute to that goal, so be it. They need not listen to politicians, academics, talking heads on the news, and others.

I’ll add that even if the police, intimidated by leftists, are not doing their job to safeguard black residents in high-crime communities, that doesn’t mean that black people should not organize to take independent measures to protect themselves.

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