By Sharad Goel and David Alan Sklansky
This past week Donald Trump called for the broad use of stop-and-frisk by police departments across the country. Or maybe just in Chicago — his position seemed to evolve. Either way, Mr. Trump claimed the tactic had worked “incredibly well” in New York City.
In reality, it was a racially discriminatory policy in which officers regularly stopped individuals with little legal basis. It undermined the trust and confidence that minority residents placed in their police department, and there is scant evidence that it reduced crime. That’s why the NYPD began retreating from these tactics even before a federal judge ordered them to do so. And that’s why we should not return to these antagonistic stop-and-frisk policies.
Mr. Trump explained that if police officers “see a person possibly with a gun or they think may have a gun, they will see the person, and they’ll look and they’ll take the gun away. They’ll stop, they’ll frisk, and they’ll take the gun away.”
It’s hard to square Mr. Trump’s enthusiasm for that approach with his adamant support for open-carry gun laws. But let’s put that difficulty aside. Mr. Trump is wrong about how New York City’s aggressive stop-and-frisk program operated and what it accomplished.
Between 2008 and 2012, police officers in New York City stopped individuals more than 750,000 times based on the suspected presence of a weapon. Only three percent of these stops actually resulted in the discovery of a weapon, and only about one-tenth of those weapons were guns. (The vast majority were knives.) Many of these stops were based on only the faintest whiff of criminal wrongdoing.
These police stops also had a heavy racial tilt. Eighty percent of the stops involved black or Hispanic suspects, even though these groups comprise only half of the New York City population. Moreover, whites stopped based on the suspected presence of a weapon were three times more likely actually to have a weapon than blacks or Hispanics stopped for similar reasons. The gap indicates that officers stopped blacks and Hispanics on the basis of considerably less evidence than whites.
In part, these racial disparities arose because the stop-and-frisk tactic was used especially often in minority neighborhoods. But even within each neighborhood, and even after accounting for a variety of other factors, the data show that minorities were stopped more often than whites, and that stops of minorities were less likely to turn up weapons. The statistics are compelling: New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy was biased against blacks and Hispanics.
Ruling in Floyd v. City of New York, federal judge Shira Scheindlin likewise concluded that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies violated the Constitution’s proscription against racial discrimination, and that the city turned a blind eye to this pattern of bias. She ordered the city to change its policies — something that, to its credit, it had already started to do.
Violating not just one but two core constitutional principles — protections against racial bias and unreasonable search and seizure — should be enough to deem any policy untenable. But one might still wonder, as Mr. Trump has claimed, whether stop-and-frisk reduces crime. Again, the statistics do not support the assertions. Over the last several years, New York City has dramatically scaled back its stop-and-frisk program — from a high of nearly 700,000 stops in 2011 to fewer than 25,000 in 2015 — but the number of homicides and the overall crime rate in the city have both continued to fall.
It is settled law that police officers can stop and frisk individuals they reasonably suspect are armed and engaged in crime. Every police department uses this tactic, and they should. But New York City was right to abandon its overly aggressive, racially discriminatory use of stop-and-frisk. It did not work “incredibly well.”
Sharad Goel is an assistant professor at Stanford University in the Department of Management Science & Engineering. David Alan Sklansky is the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.