New York City has a lot to boast about when it comes to crime reduction. Over the past 20 years, the crime rate in New York City has dropped nearly 80 percent, a steep decline that far exceeded that of other major cities with comparable demographics and challenges. By 2009 the homicide rate was lower than it had been in 1961 - one of the largest and longest sustained drops in crime in less than a generation.
There are several theories on why and how this happened, the broken windows theory being one of them. A 2011 Scientific American article probes into what happened and suggests that other cities should follow suit by putting more cops on the streets, specifically high crime settings and “hot spots” and less people in prison. Also noted is the most controversial tactic in New York’s crime reduction toolkit - aggressive patrol and policing, otherwise known as stop-and-frisk.
Stop-and-frisk has created a widening racial divide in the City, as men of color from all socio-economic backgrounds (not just in the “hot spots”) are subject to being stopped, patted down, questioned and humiliated for driving or walking while black (or Latino). Recently, Black and Latino lawmakers in New York, many of whom have been stopped by police, have been speaking out on the practice, calling for more discussion on race and public safety and supporting legislation to curb the practice. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, facing increasing criticism, continues to push back, asserting it is an essential crime-fighting tool whose benefits outweigh the corrosive effects on the community.
Really? Let’s look at the numbers. In 2003, police officers confiscated one gun for every 266 stops; in 2011, officers made 879 stops for each gun found. More stops did not actually produce more guns. In a report released this week, the New York Civil Liberties Union documents that, “the massive spike in the number of stops has done little to remove firearms from the streets”. The analysis also found that 9 out of 10 of people stopped-and-frisked were innocent, meaning they were neither arrested nor ticketed. Stunningly, the New York Police Department performed more frisks of black men in 2011 than the total number of young black men living in the city.
So what does this have to do with youth violence, which is the topic of my last blog , a focus of our symposium next week and generally a growing area of interest for Stoneleigh? The brunt of aggressive policing, such as stop-and-frisk, falls on young men of color. It feeds the persistent problem of disproportionate minority contact (DMC) among our youth, and erodes prospects for decent police-community relationships. It is also unclear whether it actually works to reduce crime. We do know it is successful in degrading whole segments of our community.
When we debate the efficacy of stop-and-frisk, we are talking about tactics and practices that can inform a whole approach to crime reduction. Stop-and-frisk is not used as aggressively here as in New York City, but there are plans to put more cops on Philly’s streets. What will they do? Philadelphia continues to grapple with high levels of violence and a massive coordination problem among law enforcement, city agencies and the community. While there are some well-meaning efforts, by all accounts, Philadelphia does not have a coherent or well-researched strategy on violent crime reduction. There needs to be a laser focus on applying what works to our context, using credible, evidence-based alternatives to stop-and-frisk.
One alternative, “focused deterrence”, has been researched extensively and is garnering growing attention. Rather than blanketing an entire community, it targets chronic violent offenders in hot spots and seeks to build up community ties and trust, rather than dismantle them à la stop-and-frisk. There are other approaches. With what we already know about what works, we can get there, in ways that don’t further harm and degrade our communities and young people.