Why has the New York Police Department been so adamant about defending its controversial stop-and-frisk policy? One big reason is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD executives are convinced that stop-and-frisk actually helps stop crime. After Judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s August decision in Floyd, et al v. City of New York, et al eviscerated the NYPD for its deployment of stop-and-frisk, Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly responded by insisting that stop-and-frisk “has saved countless lives,” and that it at least partially accounts for why New York City has “driven crime down to record lows.”
The debate over stop-and-frisk’s short-term effect on crime has been heated, if inconclusive. But less has been said about stop-and-frisk’s implications for crime fighting over the long term. The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy has alienated many members of the city’s crime-ridden low-income communities. How will that sense of alienation affect the NYPD’s ability to effectively operate in these communities in the years to come?
A new study from the nonpartisan Vera Institute of Justice offers a clue. For the study, “Coming of Age with Stop and Frisk,” researchers went into six low-income, heavily policed neighborhoods and surveyed almost 500 young New Yorkers who had been stopped by police at least once. (Stop-and-frisk targets the young; the report notes that “at least half of all recorded stops annually involve those between the ages of 13 and 25.”) As you might expect, most of the respondents’ experiences with stop-and-frisk were negative ones. Almost half of those surveyed said that officers had threatened them or used physical force during the stops. Over 80 percent of respondents claimed that they had been stopped for no good reason; 85 percent said that the frisks turned up nothing illegal.
While it’s obviously hard to verify these self-reported statistics, that last one, at least, does match up with outside numbers: In 2012 almost 90 percent of stop-and-frisk incidents citywide yielded no drugs, guns, open containers, or anything else illegal. This sort of regular, fruitless harassment can’t help but breed hostility toward the police, which in turn seems almost certain to affect the NYPD’s ability to tap community resources in order to solve crimes. The report notes that “only 15 percent [of respondents] believe the police are honest, and 12 percent believe that residents of their neighborhood trust the police. Just four out of 10 respondents said they would be comfortable seeking help from police if in trouble.” Fewer than 25 percent of respondents would bother reporting a known criminal to the police. Only 41 percent of respondents would even bother contacting the police if they were the victims of a violent crime.
It's hard to assess these numbers without a sense of how they’ve changed over time. There’s never been a ton of love or respect for the police in New York’s low-income, high-crime neighborhoods, and the Vera study doesn’t do much to put these numbers in historical context. And yet, at the very least, it’s clear that stop-and-frisk has done little to improve community relations. And that’s a problem. Criminal investigations succeed or fail in large part based on community buy-in; on officers’ ability to elicit useful information from those who might know how and why a given incident happened. But it’s hard to cooperate with someone you don’t trust—and the Vera Institute report clearly indicates that, in the neighborhoods they studied, “trust in law enforcement is alarmingly low.” By continuing to defend stop-and-frisk, Bloomberg and Kelly risk making it impossible to rebuild that trust over the long term.