Stop and Frisk

I normally don’t comment on topical, symbolic issues like this, preferring instead to write about issues that I myself raise, issues that I know more about.  And I’ve pretty much given up writing about solutions, because I have come to realize that solutions based on my assumptions – that everyone has equal value and the future and those who will live in it matter, for example – are not what politicians are looking for.  And yet so much nonsense is being tossed around on the subject of “stop and frisk” that I feel compelled to comment, because those throwing the nonsense are in effect pretending that their pandering is cost free and will not result in losses elsewhere.  This is the usual free political free shot – pander to one constituency, and blame any responsible suckers for the associated consequences.

Several facts need to be considered.  According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, New York City’s overall crime rate, once well above the U.S. average, is now well below U.S. average, although the city remains above average in the one crime that it seems to specialize in – robbery.  In March 2002, according the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of New York City police officers was 2.9 times the U.S. average relative to population, and in FY 2011 it was still 2.81 times the U.S. average.  In 2010, according to the 2012 financial report of the New York City Police Pension fund, there were 34,600 active members working, earning an average of $100,127.  And 44,630 retired members, receiving an average of $40,200, free of state and local income taxes, with automatic increases each year.  In the January 2006 Financial Plan from the NYC Office of Management and Budget, FY 2006 judgments and claims against the NYPD were projected to total $101 million.  In the February 2013 Financial Plan, the estimate for this fiscal year is $180 million.  I’ll discuss these facts and others after the break.

Much of this controversy dates back to the large scale expansion of the police force in the administration of Mayor David Dinkins, during Ray Kelly’s first tenure as Police Commissioner, the advent of aggressive, data-driven crime prevention policing in the mid-1990s Giuliani Administration, as promoted by former NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his deputy Jack Maple, and the “broken windows” theory promoted by sociologist James Q. Wilson.

Before the early 1990s the U.S. in general, and older central cities in particular, had suffered 25 years of elevated crime despite a skyrocketing prison population.  At the time, unless a crime happened in front of them, police only acted after a crime had occurred, when they started an investigation.  And with ever rising crime rates and strong unions reducing the expectations of police work during a given shift (unless overtime was on offer), some crimes were simply allowed to occur so that resources could be concentrated on those more serious.  If someone felt like throwing garbage in the street, people pretty much were expected to live with streets filled with garbage, or move to the suburbs.

Starting in the mid-1990s, however, the police began to aggressively prosecute minor infractions on the grounds that not only were they unfair to the community as a whole, whose quality of life was reduced, but also emboldened the perpetrators to try more serious crimes.  The police also paid particular attention to known offenders, checking for weapons any time any of them so much as jaywalked or jumped a turnstile, or using the pretext of “reasonable suspicion” when they had done nothing at all.  At first many ended up going to prison on gun changes.  And then fewer people started carrying guns, at least in NYC.

As promoted by advocates of the new policing, it was a big success.  Crime fell.  The quality of life improved.  The prison population soared at first, but then plunged a decade later as fewer people were convicted of crimes.  Drug dealing, prostitution and the like were driven underground, and people felt safe walking the streets.

According to critics, however, the aggressive policing strategies and the fall in crime merely happened at about the same time, with falling crime actually caused by something else.   Lead paint abatement, and the resulting decline in mental impairment is one theory.  Legalized abortion, and the resulting decline in unwanted poor minority males is another.  A lower level of drug abuse, due to individual decisions to avoid becoming addicted to drugs not police action to make the drugs less available, is a third.

In the pre-aggressive policing years, a high crime rate and a low quality life had been considered acceptable in poor minority communities.  Acceptable, that is, to the police and politicians, as long as the problems did not spill over into the communities occupied by the better off.  The aggressive policing strategies are based on the idea that anti-social people should be held to the same standards, and everyone else is entitled to the same decency and protection, in poorer communities as in richer communities.  Even if most of the miscreants emerge from the poorer communities.  The poorer the community, therefore, the greater the benefit from the decrease in crime and lesser offenses in recent years.

The practice of stopping, questioning, and feeling people in poor communities, however, is not cost free.  It is harassing, humiliating, and aggravating to those who are not criminals themselves.  While receiving the benefits, those who live in these communities also bore the costs.  It is analogous to the much resented rituals we all have to go through now to get on an airplane.

Perhaps people were more willing to put up with the downside when they were more likely to be robbed, raped or killed, and are less willing to put up with it now that they are safer.  According to what I read in the newspaper, the number of people “stopped and frisked” has risen in recent years even after the crime rate had fallen.  It appears that those who credit aggressive policing with falling crime decided that the best way to keep crime falling was to double down, and redouble down, on the same strategy.

I am not an expert in this category, and the experts disagree.  Some say aggressive tactics such as “stop and frisk” were and are absolutely necessary, others that the whole thing is just wasteful racism.  But there is a third possibility.  That the aggressive policing tactics were in fact needed to stop the 25-year crime wave, but can now be dialed back since it is over.  According to this theory, the crime wave was driven by generational values.

The official crime statistics only cover street crimes, the sorts of crimes that are generally committed by poor young men.  When certain generations were at the age of street crime, street crime soared.  When those generations became older than most people who are street criminals, street crime fell.

On the other hand, white collar crimes are generally committed by better off who are far enough along in life to gain the opportunity to commit them.  When those same generations entered middle age, and rose to the top ranks in a variety of public and private organizations, white-collar crime soared.  In fact, we have had a white collar riot.  Perhaps if enough affluent white people had been stopped and frisked financially, the white collar riot could have been prevented, and perhaps a lot of enforcement of white collar quality of life crimes will be required to turn it around.  Now those same generations are heading into old age, and their damage will shift to a new front.

Younger generations, according to this theory, have different values.  That’s why street crimes are now down.  But New York City’s level of police staffing, given its below average crime rate, is still at a level that only makes sense if one assumes that New Yorkers of all generations are somehow inherently criminal compared with other Americans (or at least more of them are), and that it takes an army from the suburbs to prevent them from running amok.  That may be so.  It may not be so.  It may be that it used to be so, and is no longer so, at least among people under age 40.

A new Mayor will be coming in.  What should he or she do?  I have two suggestions.

First, re-hire Bill Bratton as police commissioner.  He has indicated he is interested in the job, from what I read in the newspaper.  The fact that Bratton is Mr. Stop and Frisk will re-assure people that the police are not going to let the crime rate go back to the level of 1990 by ceasing to do their job.

On the other hand, Mr. Bratton seems to know something that not everyone does.  In late 1990s, after he had had a falling out with Mayor Giuliani and moved on, I read in the newspaper that Bratton recommended reducing NYPD staffing, and perhaps using the savings to raise pay.  Crime had already plunged, and with fewer criminals left on the street Bratton believed having too many police officers would either lead to less police work per officer, or more counterproductive harassment.  Officer attention previously focused on criminals would be spent on others.

Bratton went on to Los Angeles, were despite vastly lower police staffing levels compared with population than New York City, similar levels of crime reduction were achieved.

At the time Giuliani was indicating he wanted even MORE cops, something those of us who had seen data on how highly the NYPD was staffed thought was nuts.  Later New York’s police officers did get an enormous, enormous increase in pay.  Not in starting salary – that was cut drastically – and not much in cash while they are working.  In the amount of pay after retirement, and the pension contributions required to support it, for which there is no gratitude at all.

Given how much NYC spends on the police, frankly, I don’t want to hear that the NYPD could not, and would not be obligated to, protect city residents if their staffing level were to fall to, say, just double the U.S. average relative to population (and far more relative to land area policed).  Given the statement I remember reading, and his record in Los Angeles, I would expect Bratton to dial back both staffing levels and “stop and frisk” to more reasonable levels.

And given the city’s financial situation (not yet admitted to until Bloomberg leaves office), that is probably a good thing.  The increase in police staffing levels during the Dinkins Administration was funded by the “Safe Streets Safe City” income tax surcharge.  That surcharge expired late in the Giuliani Administration, but the higher staffing levels have remained.  Though it will not be admitted, NYC will probably need another surcharge soon, along with more cuts in services year-by-year.  That surcharge should be called “Enriched Pensions, Indebted City.”  The real debate that should be held is not about stop and frisk, but about whether increase to already sky-high taxes or inferior services are worse for the city, and in which proportions.

Here is the second part of the plan.

Given that there is a difference of opinion as to the necessity of stop and frisk, and other aggressive police actions in general, the right approach is to stage a test.  What I propose is that the NYPD go back to the pre-early 1990s pattern of passive, reactive policing in one precinct in Brooklyn, one in Queens, and one in the Bronx.   Let’s call them the “freedom precincts.”  In Brooklyn, I propose the 67th precinct.

In these precincts, no one would be stopped, frisked, or even spoken to without a warrant.  The strictest standards of probable cause would be used.  So a guy with a history of violent crime who just got out of prison has a bulge in his pants?  Who is to say that is a gun? Someone points to someone else and says they have a gun?  Says someone is a gang member and dealing drugs?  Maybe they have a beef.  Ask them if they are willing to swear out an affidavit, and then go for that warrant. Go downtown, and see if a judge will give you a warrant, but otherwise sit in your cruiser and wait for the 9/11 call.

The police would stop crimes they see in progress, respond to 9/11 calls AFTER crimes had occurred, fill out the paperwork and start and investigations, but otherwise leave people alone.  And as for quality of life crimes, they would be ignored unless members of the community, in community meetings, were willing to stand up and demand that particular people be subject to citations.

Is this sarcasm?  Is this madness?  Is this retaliation for complaining about stop and frisk?

No.  It is the way my neighborhood is in fact policed.  No stop and frisk there.  In fact, you’ll never see a cop there unless they are at the deli or bagel store.  Years ago, when an older woman was followed home from the subway, pushed into her house, and killed, it was investigated after the fact.  When a young woman, returning home from work at 4 am, was brutally raped and nearly killed, that was also investigated.  And when the owner of dry cleaners was broken into as she was closing and murdered, there was not only an investigation but also an arrest.

Crime prevention where I live is something the neighbors do for themselves, but unfortunately no one heard or saw in the three incidents mentioned.  There is no garbage in the streets because people don’t throw garbage in the streets, and if they do they are yelled at, and someone cleans it up.  Policing by the police, on the other hand, is reactive, as needed – and cheap.

To further ensure the police in the freedom precinct did not hassle the citizens, I’d expand on an idea proposed by Bill Thompson and place veteran officers there.  How veteran?  Those in their last year or two before retirement.  As a former officer once told me, a police officer would be an idiot to stay on the job one minute later than he is eligible for retirement.  Because unlike other public employees and politicians, they can lose their pensions if they are found to have committed “misconduct.” A police brutality or harassment charge, for example.  There is an incentive for you.

Commanders there would be told that the new metrics would be the extent of civilian complains and lawsuits, and the success rate of RESPONSE to crimes AFTER THE FACT – arrests and convictions AFTER the crimes had occurred and been reported.  Not the level of crime itself, as long as the police were not committing them, and not the level of police activity, including quotas for people spoken with, looked over, and bothered.  Hopefully money would be saved on fewer police, less overtime due to arrests and summonses, and a decrease in judgments and claims.  Given the cost of pensions, well be paying for the era of pro-active policing for decades more as it is.

There are even more expensive ways to reduce crime without aggressive, data-driven crime prevention strategies such as “stop and frisk.”   You can eliminate all other city services and have all 400,000 city employees be cops instead, with two on every block all hours of the day and night.  But guess what?  We aren’t going to eliminate all other services, and we aren’t going to have 400,000 cops, so that isn’t going to be a general policy.  So anyone who objects to “stop and frisk” and subsequently calls for more police is really looking for a special deal where they are, balanced by service reductions – and police protection reductions – where somewhere is.  And that isn’t fair.  More lawsuits, as some in the City Council propose, leading to more budget cuts where I live?  Let’s just cut back on police activity in the areas where people are complaining instead, and save money twice.

So as part of our experiment, the share of total officers assigned to the “freedom precincts” would not be decreased (the absolute number would fall as more money continues to be shifted to the pensions), but neither would it be increased, during the experiment period.  Other ways to respond to crime would have to be found there.  More community involvement, more meetings, whatever the locals think might work and are willing to do.  Just not more police.  Police resources would be reallocated elsewhere in the city according to crime patterns, as they are today.

The experiment would run for five years, no matter what.  There is some natural variation in the extent of crime, but politicians and the media seek self-promotion in the moment.  If the crime rate in the “freedom precincts” did not rise for, say, three months, I’ll bet some politicians would call for the immediate elimination of pro-active policing citywide.    Perhaps after three years some lessons could be learned elsewhere, but I wouldn’t be to hasty to draw conclusions given the stakes.

And given Mayor Bloomberg’s recent over the top comments, I’d expect the same hysterical reaction to a short term spike in rapes, murders, robberies, etc. that was possibly indicative of nothing.  Once you go down this road, you need to go all the way to draw real conclusions.  If the crime rate were to soar, the police could double down on the new procedures the way they have recently doubled down on stop and frisk, instead of reverting to prior policies, even if those now complaining about stop and frisk changed their minds and are protesting in favor of it.  Let the experiment run until there are reliable results.

This is the sort of “issue” the pols love to talk about.  It’s all BS.  So let’s stop the BS, save a few bucks in some places on “Stop and Frisk,” and see if more can be saved in the future.