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A conservative columnist admits it: “We were wrong about stop-and-frisk”

After stop-and-frisk ended, crime in New York City kept dropping.

A New York City police officer in Time Square.

Eduardo Alvarez/Getty Images

Conservative pundit Kyle Smith has a piece over at National Review with a simple admission: “We Were Wrong About Stop-and-Frisk.”

Smith looks at the controversial use of stop-and-frisk, an aggressive practice in which police stopped, questioned, and frisked suspects on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing. A court struck down the policy in 2013, finding that it had been disproportionately used against minority residents. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also campaigned against the policy as a candidate that year, assuring New Yorkers that his election would be the end of it.

That led a lot of conservatives — and the police — to warn that crime would spike without stop-and-frisk. Reality, however, tells a different story, Smith explained:

Today in New York City, use of stop-and-frisk, which the department justified via the 1968 Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court ruling, has crashed. Yet the statistics are clear: Crime is lower than ever. It’s possible that crime would be even lower had stop-and-frisk been retained, but that’s moving the goalposts. I and others argued that crime would rise. Instead, it fell. We were wrong.

This isn’t the first time supporters of stop-and-frisk have publicly apologized in an op-ed, with the New York Daily News editorial board running a similar mea culpa in 2016. New York City’s persistent crime drops have forced groups with conservative leanings on policing to reevaluate their beliefs.

“As of December 27, New York City saw 286 homicides in 2017, down 12 percent from the previous year, itself a near-record low,” Smith explained. “That is a rate of about 3 per 100,000 population. By contrast, Chicago’s homicide rate for 2017 was about 24 per 100,000. The figure for Baltimore is about 56. There were more murder victims in Baltimore than in New York City in 2017, even though New York has nearly 14 times as many residents.” (There are lots of reasons for the crime drop in New York and other parts of the country. For more on those, read Vox’s explainer.)

So not only did stop-and-frisk violate the rights of minority Americans but it also doesn’t even seem like it was particularly successful at its main goal of combating crime.

Stop-and-frisk was at best weak for crime fighting — but definitely alienated minority residents

The results are predictable. The research has long found that the effects of stop-and-frisk on crime were weak at best. Some studies suggested stop-and-frisk didn’t have any effect whatsoever.

It’s notoriously hard to study these issues — how do you separate stop-and-frisk from other policing actions and contributors to crime? — but the body of evidence shows that police departments could stop aggressive overpolicing and use other strategies to make up for the small potential impact of ending stop-and-frisk.

That’s particularly pertinent because we do know stop-and-frisk had one big effect: It massively increased distrust, particularly among black and brown New Yorkers, toward police.

It’s not hard to see why. According to city data, the great majority of people who were stopped and frisked in New York City were minority residents. Almost all turned out to have no contraband on them — meaning they weren’t guilty of any crime. And 1 percent of black people who were stopped had weapons or contraband on them, while 1.4 percent of white people stopped did — suggesting that black people weren’t more likely to be doing anything wrong despite getting stopped more often.

Stop and frisk in New York City. Alvin Chang/Vox

New York City police at the time claimed that they were simply conducting a majority of stops in high-crime areas, which are disproportionately black and brown. But as criminologist Jeffrey Fagan found, even if you controlled for crime, minority New Yorkers were still disproportionately stopped:

The percent Black population and the percent Hispanic population predict higher numbers of stops, controlling for the local crime rate and the social and economic characteristics of the precinct. … The crime rate is significant as well, so the identification of the race effects suggests that racial composition has a marginal influence on stops, over and above the unique contributions of crime.

As a result of these racial disparities, stop-and-frisk fostered distrust and resentment toward police. That distrust could have actually led to more crime: The evidence shows that police can better solve and prevent crimes if they have the trust and cooperation of their community.

So it’s potentially a win for everyone involved that New York City managed to end this overly aggressive, racially biased tactic without causing a crime wave. And although criminologists still have a lot to learn from New York City’s massive, decades-long crime drop and what exactly contributed to it, the successful end of stop-and-frisk is a good sign for policing reforms as the nation increasingly wakes up to the brutality and racial disparities of the criminal justice system.