There are a couple problems with the policy. The handling is often rough, is highly resented by the frequent targets (young men of color) and their families, and might be contra the word and spirit of our constitutional rights. These rights include the guarantee that we aren't subject to arbitrary search and seizure. Such an intrusion, and it is a big intrusion, is legal only when based on individualized suspicion.
Safety Vs. RightsWith that background covered, I want to move on to the big question: when (or if) to make the tradeoff between fundamental rights and safety. In many aspects of life (my life at least), safety is the prime issue. My car is much safer than models from 50 years ago because safety was a huge priority, and the government forced the car companies to add safety features. In healthcare, safety is the top priority. You don't endanger your life to save someone else. Your rights as a patient abruptly end when there is danger to other people, including to the professionals who are responsible for caring for you. We definitely manhandle the obstreperous patients.
So safety is a very worthy consideration. However, so is the right to be free from unreasonable searches. I'm so glad that I don't randomly get pulled over or stopped when I walk, forced up against a wall, have my pockets emptied and my arms, legs, and trunk felt all over. That's not the way to treat anyone whom you respect--it's a denial of human dignity.
Yet I submit to full body scan when I take an airplane, and I'd allow a frisk if that was required. Why? Because I've seen plenty of hijackings during my life. Air travel is clearly a target, and lesser measures haven't been enough to ensure safety. Also, it's an infrequent intrusion, well defined in scope and timing and broadly applied. Those limits are what make it acceptable to me.
View from the CityI'm not personally affected by NYC's Stop and Frisk policy, or by NYC's crime. I rarely visit there, and I'm old enough so I don't look like anyone's idea of a mugger. I don't have the personal stake that New Yorkers have, so I definitely wouldn't tell them what to think.
Still, I try to put myself in their shoes because that's the best way to understand the issue. On one hand, the relatively high risk of being stopped and frisked may inhibit crime. A person is less likely to carry a weapon for mugging or burglary tools when there's a chance of being stopped and frisked. I wonder if burglary and robbery rates went down a great deal at the start of this program. I wonder if burglary and robbery would rise if the program was suspended. Why would you put people through that kind of search if it wasn't effective? That's the only reason I find body scans reasonable at airports--we know that they are effective in preventing hijackings.
Question of EfficacyWhen I take a closer look at how the program works, certain aspects surprise me. Arrests for illegal gun possession have occurred in just 1.9% of the stops. That makes me wonder why the mayor thinks this program is so important in its effectiveness. The cops aren't actually taking many weapons off the streets this way, so what is the effect? Could police presence alone, without a quota of stops, be as large a deterrent to crime? I don't see why not, but I'm no expert on this.
It seems to me that the police have broad enough power to stop people when they have even mild suspicions--suspicion due to bulges in clothes that could be guns or illegal knives, someone walking too closely, or someone checking out purses, wallets, and briefcases. The police don't need to have a quota of stops besides. They don't need to stop someone with no suspicion whatsoever and subject that person to invasive search just for being outdoors in their own city. The thinkers behind the Bill of Rights were correct--you shouldn't be stopped or searched for no reason at all.
That said, I'm surprised by the amount of support for the program among residents in neighborhoods where many of the stops are conducted. It seems that they feel much safer due to these police actions. Many fear a return of higher crime rates. They want to feel safer in their neighborhoods. I can't argue with that--that's exactly how I feel when I fly or drive--I want to feel safe. I hope that can be achieved without quotas of stops and without random searches. If crime rates rise, perhaps this policy is the only deterrent that works. If that's true, we're back to the difficult question of safety versus rights, and rights may well lose for the greater good of safety.
- Bloomberg is a racist elitist.
- The legal view against the policy.
- The true aim is to instill fear.
- Gun rights advocate/libertarian says the police shouldn't take guns from those who carry in NYC.
- A black parent has misgivings about ending program and a surge of gun violence.
- Frequent fliers, but their families support the program.
- New Yorker article with statistical analysis of stops.
- Mend, not end: "If they're going to frisk, they should follow procedures." But also: "I'm black, I've been jailed for no reason. That's why I don't go outside at night."
- More background and statistics, but see the Wall Street Journal and this article for some counter statistics:
- 87% of those stopped are black or hispanic.
- 88.5% of those stopped have no evidence of a crime on them.
- 78% of shooting suspects are black.
- Major crimes have fallen 34% in NYC, but only 14% across the country.