Beyond the Numbers: A Debate Over the Effects of NYPD Stop and Frisk

Just after the New York Police Department released crime data touting the positive effects of stop and frisk in making the city safer, a judge cleared the way for thousands of New Yorkers who feel they've been victimized by the policy to join a class action lawsuit. The suit claims the policy allows the NYPD to subject millions of New Yorkers to racially biased illegal searches, and it seeks an injunction forcing the department to change the controversial policy.

Much of the argument over stop and frisk lies in numbers. For instance, the NYPD says its policy has led to a falling murder rate and more gun seizures, with homicides down 21 percent this year and the number of illicit guns seized up 31 percent from last year. Yet, then there's numbers from the New York Civil Liberties Union showing that although African-American and Latino young men aged 14-24 make up only 4.7 percent of the city's population, they account for 41.6 percent of all stops in 2011, with similar numbers in the first three months of this year.

Yet, to analyze the controversial policy and whether it should be changed, one must take a look at the effects, both positive and negative, that stem from stop and frisk. Jon Leiberman, an HLN contributor and former America's Most Wanted correspondent, and I debate the pros and cons of stop and frisk:

Jon: The reality is that crime has gone way down in New York City and that stop and frisk has certainly contributed to it. I get the fact that the statistics show nearly 686,000 stops in one year and that's way, way, way up from 2002 where it was just over 97,000 but I feel that it's working. It's keeping guns off the street. It's kept crime down to numbers that this city never imagined and, unfortunately, sometimes it takes things like stop and frisk to make that a reality.

Mari: While stop and frisk is contributing to a decrease in crime, we can't ignore the fact that it provides the basis for racial profiling. Last year 53 percent of those stopped were African-American, 34 percent were Latino and only nine percent were white and it was about the same numbers in the first three months of this year. So while the NYPD can present statistics showing a plunging murder rate and tout the policy as the reason why, I think what's necessary is an independent investigation by the Justice Department or some other independent group into their policing and an independent verification of the numbers and the data, as a recent New York Times editorial called for.

Jon: The reality is, and this is not meant to stereotype, but homicide statistics show about half of all murders are committed by African Americans who represent just 12.6 percent of the population, so if you look at those numbers in the context of stop and frisk, then you see why more African Americans are getting stopped and frisked according to NYPD policy. People don't want their rights violated, that is obviously a good argument and rights should be watched out for, but then you go to the other side, which is crime is down and whole areas of the city are now safe because of stop and frisk, according to Mayor Blooomberg. As a recent Washington Post editorial points out, whole areas of the city have risen from the dead, stores have opened, people stroll the streets.

Mari: The NYPD argues this policy ends up disproportionately protecting minority communities. They released statistics saying African Americans and Hispanics make up 96 percent of all New York City shooting victims and 90 percent of all murders victims in 2011 and they say, therefore, such a drop in shootings citywide will logically equate to fewer minorities being killed. However, the majority of the people who are stopped and frisked are innocent. According to the NYCLU, 88 percent of people stopped last year were innocent. The problem is, while it can protect minority communities, more importantly, it leads to a distrust of law enforcement among minorities and I think that is the big issue. City Council member Jumaane Williams has denounced the policy, saying, "Communities are losing trust with the police, which is one of the biggest crime fighting tools we have." NYCLU data shows police are significantly more likely to use force when they stop blacks and Hispanics than when they stop whites, which ultimately can lead to a deep distrust of law enforcement.

Jon: The distrust of law enforcement is an issue certainly. We have stop-snitching in many parts of the city and stop and frisk does not help relations, generally, in the community. But, that being said, what does help in these communities is when innocent people don't have to fear for their lives walking down the street. If you're not doing anything wrong and you get stopped and frisked, yes its an inconvenience, yes, you can be outraged by the very fact that you were stopped for no reason, but if you're not doing anything wrong, you are generally not going to get arrested or cited for anything. I think the NYPD should continue on this path because of the results that, in part, this policy has garnered.

Mari: You're saying if they don't have anything on them, what's the harm? Yet, the police could be writing up summons for things as little as disorderly conduct, which led to fines, which a lot of poor families can't pay. And if they don't show up in court for these summonses, they can end up with a more serious situation. Your argument is what's the harm if they get stopped and they have nothing on them? Yet, what about Ramarley Graham, the 18-year-old who in February died at the hands of a cop? Graham only had a bag of marijuana on him, but police thought they spotted a gun and a white officer chased him into his own home, into his bathroom and shot and killed this 18-year-old young man for nothing more than a bag of pot because he believed he had a gun. I know that is a rare circumstance, but things like that can stem from racial profiling and from stop and frisk.

Jon: Obviously that young man's life should have never been taken, but that is the extreme of what happens. I argue that 99 percent of the time, law enforcement gets it right in some of the most difficult circumstances. While I do see the extremes at times, they are rare and they are not the norm. Sometimes, obviously, good cops go bad, but in general I do think law enforcement does an extremely good job especially in this city.

Mari: While stop and frisk is one factor that can contribute to a decrease in crime, there are a lot of concerns that come with it. Something else that can contribute to a decrease in crime is getting to the root of the problem, like the Safe Streets program in Baltimore and the CeaseFire program in Chicago. Both programs enlist former prison convicts to go into dangerous neighborhoods and try to prevent violence before it erupts. When they learn about a conflict brewing, they approach those involved and talk to them and try to steer them toward turnaround opportunities such as school or jobs, according to USA Today. The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says Baltimore's Safe Streets program gets some of the credit for a 56 percent reduction in homicides in the Cherry Hill neighborhood from January 2009 through December 2010. A 2008 Justice Department review found that since CeaseFire began in Chicago in 2004, it had brought about a decline in shootings from 41 percent to 73 percent, depending on the neighborhood. These programs target potential criminals and get to the root problem, which to me is more effective than these stop and frisk programs, which can ultimately lead to a deep distrust of law enforcement.

Jon: In many communities, there is already a deep distrust of police and no matter what you do, nothing will change that. You can convert a small part of the community, but there will always be a large part of the community that has a distrust of police as much as people don't want to admit it.

While the city may appeal the judge's decision to grant class-action status to the lawsuit, its filing no doubt is sparking an important conversation over the benefits and disadvantages of the controversial policy.