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The Commish on Stop and Frisk

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Mary Kissel of the WSJ has this video interview with NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly on the stop and frisk policies of the NYPD.  These policies are part of the reason New York has seen a dramatic plunge in its murder rate and in crime generally, so naturally they are under attack in the courts.

Against the charge of racism made with statistics, Kelly notes what I call the Fallacy of the Irrelevant Denominator.  Comparing the racial statistics of stops to the general population, it would seem that the police are unfairly targeting minorities.  The reality, though, is that the racial statistics are proportional to the perpetrators of violent crime, the correct basis of comparison.

Kelly also explains that the "activists" challenging the policies do not speak for all people of their particular racial groups.  Minorities are disproportionately the victims of crime, and many support the policies.

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I am not sure that the denominator is really irrelevant, or more accurately, I am not sure that the racial proportion of perps is the correct basis of comparison. Presumably, unless innocent minorities are more likely to conduct themselves suspiciously, then the proportion should be a weighted average of (a) the racial breakdown of perps and (b) the racial breakdown of the population at large.

The NYPD's stop and frisk policy, putatively, is unquestionably constitutional. The problem is that it represents a bit of mission creep for Terry v. Ohio. The facts of Terry deal with an ad hoc, on the spot decision by a cop. A policy is a different animal. Couple that with the well-documented problems of the NYPD (drug-planting, assaults and bogus stops) and while you may not have a per se constitutional violation caused by the policy, you do have causes for concern.

My sense is that, ultimately, the courts aren't the right place to litigate a policy such as this one--what remedy could be imposed--obviously, you cannot ban Terry stops, and the policy could simply be changed to police education about when and where they can stop people and that would basically have the same effect on police behavior. That said, it's not right to turn a blind eye to the abuses that this policy may encourage.

I suspect that the reality is that minorities who live in high-crime areas have to live with the fact that cops have a bigger presence in those areas and have more of a mandate to do what is necessary to stop crime. I think that accepting that reality when it comes to public policy debates would help advance serious discussion of this issue. Vigorous police practices have collateral consequences, and often those collateral consequences fall on innocent people. Cops should strive to reduce those collateral consequences, and liberals should be willing to put a lot of the blame on perps who make life miserable for those who live in high-crime areas. Additionally, liberals should understand that hamstringing vigorous police practices have a price, often in blood.

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