The New York Times’s front page story this week on the New York Police Department and its allegedly racist stop-and-frisk practices follows a well-worn template: give specific racial breakdowns for every aspect of police behavior, but refer to racial crime rates only in the most attenuated of terms. Disclosing crime rates—the proper benchmark against which police behavior must be measured—would demolish a cornerstone of the Times’s worldview: that the New York Police Department, like police departments across America, oppresses the city’s black population with unjustified racial tactics.
This week’s story, written by Al Baker, began with what the Times thinks is a shocking disparity: “Blacks and Latinos were nine times as likely as whites to be stopped by the police in New York City in 2009, but, once stopped, were no more likely to be arrested.” (The fact that blacks, Hispanics, and whites are arrested at the same rate after a stop undercuts, rather than supports, the thesis of racially biased policing, but more on that later.)
The Times’s story includes a graphic breakdown of police stops by race: blacks made up 55 percent of all stops in 2009, though they’re only 23 percent of the city’s population; whites accounted for 10 percent of all stops, though they’re 35 percent of the city’s population; Hispanics made up 32 percent of all stops, though 28 percent of the population, and Asians, 3 percent of all stops and 12 percent of the population. The article details a host of other police actions by specific racial numbers, including arrests, frisks, and use of force.
But when the Times gets around to mentioning crime rates, more than halfway into the piece, it does so only because the NYPD raises them in its defense, not because the Times deems them independently worthy of note in a story on police stops. And it mentions them only as a form of reported speech, in the most generalized of terms: “Mr. Browne, the department spokesman, . . . said the stops mirrored crime—that while a large percentage of the stops involved blacks, an even larger percentage of violent crimes involved suspects described as black by their victims.” This formula, which carefully brackets a non-specific statement about crime rates as what the police department says, as opposed to simply what the facts are, is by now standard Times practice:
February 11, 2010: “Police officials have said that while a large percentage of the street stops involve blacks, an even larger percentage of crimes involve suspects described as black by their victims.”
May 13, 2009: “On Tuesday, Mr. Browne said that the stops ‘comport by race proportionally with descriptions provided by crime victims.’”
February 11, 2009: “The police have said that while a large percentage of the stops involve black people, an even larger percentage of crimes involve suspects described as black by their victims.”
May 6, 2008: “The police have said that while a large percentage of the street stops involve black people, an even larger percentage of crimes involve suspects described as black by their victims.”
Only in 2007 did the Times disclose some actual black crime rates in discussing stop-and-frisk activity—though as usual, only as an aspect of the NYPD’s defense of itself, and only by attributing those crime rates to what the police “say,” as if they were a matter of opinion, unlike the stop-and-frisk rates, which the paper reports as a fact so indisputable that it does not need a source. That 2007 slip has never been allowed to reappear, however; the disclosure of crime rates has been purged from all subsequent Times stories on the NYPD’s stop activities. The actual numbers convey the shocking magnitude of the city’s crime disparities with a vividness that a mere generalized statement about a “larger percentage of crimes than stops” cannot, which is why the numbers are almost always left out. The actual crime rates reveal that blacks are being significantly understopped, compared with their representation in the city’s criminal population, another reason for omitting them from the paper’s reporting.
Here are the crime data that the Times doesn’t want its readers to know: blacks committed 66 percent of all violent crimes in the first half of 2009 (though they were only 55 percent of all stops and only 23 percent of the city’s population). Blacks committed 80 percent of all shootings in the first half of 2009. Together, blacks and Hispanics committed 98 percent of all shootings. Blacks committed nearly 70 percent of all robberies. Whites, by contrast, committed 5 percent of all violent crimes in the first half of 2009, though they are 35 percent of the city’s population (and were 10 percent of all stops). They committed 1.8 percent of all shootings and less than 5 percent of all robberies. The face of violent crime in New York, in other words, like in every other large American city, is almost exclusively black and brown. Any given violent crime is 13 times more likely to be committed by a black than by a white perpetrator—a fact that would have been useful to include in the Times’s lead, which stated that “Blacks and Latinos were nine times as likely as whites to be stopped.” These crime data are not some artifact that the police devise out of their skewed racial mindset. They are what the victims of those crimes—the vast majority of whom are minority themselves—report to the police.
You cannot properly analyze police behavior without analyzing crime. Crime is what drives NYPD tactics; it is the basis of everything the department does. And crime, as reported by victims and witnesses, sends police overwhelmingly to minority neighborhoods, because that’s where the vast majority of crime occurs—by minority criminals against minority victims.
The Times’s analysis, by contrast, which follows in lock step with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, assumes that policing should mirror census data. The only numerical benchmark that the Times provides for the NYPD’s stop data is the city’s population ratios. According to this analysis, since whites are 35 percent of the city’s population, they should be 35 percent of police stops, even though they commit only 5 percent of all violent crimes. But using census data as a benchmark for policing is as nonsensical as it would be to use census data for fire department activity. If a particular census tract has a disproportionate number of fires, and another census tract has none, no one expects the FDNY to send out fire trucks to non-existent fires in the fire-free census tract just for the sake of equal representation.
The proactive policing revolution that began under NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994 declared that the police would actually lower crime—an unheard-of idea in the annals of policing. To accomplish that feat, the department began rigorously scrutinizing crime data on a daily basis and deploying officers to crime hot spots. Once there, officers were expected to be on the look-out for suspicious behavior. If there had been a string of robberies at ATMs in East Flatbush, for example, and an officer saw two guys apparently casing an ATM user from across the street, who then walked quickly away when they spotted the uniform, the officer was expected to stop and question the two men. If thieves had been preying on senior citizens in Harlem, someone walking closely behind a retiree in the 28th precinct and looking furtively over his shoulder would likely be stopped by an officer deployed there in response to the crime spike. Those stops may not have resulted in an arrest, if no evidence of a crime were found, but they may have disrupted a crime in the making.
This data-driven, proactive style of policing, which came to be known as Compstat, led to the largest crime drop in recent memory. The biggest returns were in New York’s minority neighborhoods, because that’s where crime was and still is the highest. Blacks and Hispanics have made up 79 percent of the 78 percent decline in homicide victims since 1990. Over 10,000 black and Hispanic males are alive today who would have been dead had homicide rates remained at early 1990s levels.
The Times’s article is filled with the usual NYPD critics. There’s Donna Lieberman and Christopher Dunn from the New York Civil Liberties Union, Darius Charney from the Center for Constitutional Rights (which is suing the department over its stop policies), Jeffrey Fagan from Columbia University law school, and “researchers” from the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. These critics’ understanding of policing and crime is quixotic, to put it kindly. At a panel on stop and frisks at the New York City Bar Association this March (in which I participated), Fagan proposed the Chicago Police Department, which does not use proactive stops, as a model of policing that the NYPD should emulate. Fagan did not mention that New York City’s homicide rate is two-fifths that of Chicago, and that juveniles in the Windy City under the age of 17 are killed at four times the rate of those in New York, an epidemic of youth killings so severe as to prompt an emergency visit from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last October. The director of John Jay’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice maintains that because the absolute number of homicides committed nationally by blacks, on the one hand, and whites and Hispanics, on the other, is roughly the same (though blacks commit more), there is no black crime problem.
The Times, however, did not consult any minority supporters of Compstat policing to get their perspective on whether the police are bearing down too hard in high-crime neighborhoods. A good place to start would have been a police-community meeting in East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, or other any high-crime area. Here is what the reporter would have heard from community members: “We want more officers, we want more arrests, we want the dealers off the corner.” The police cannot respond to these heartfelt requests for public safety without generating disproportionate stop data that can be used against them in a racial profiling law suit. If a grandmother in a public housing project calls the police about the young drug dealers in her lobby, a properly responsive officer is going to question the youths hanging out there. The officer is not “profiling” the youths; he is responding to a citizen request for action. But the NYCLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights will tally all those stops against the police as evidence of “racial profiling.” The police aren’t getting calls from Riverdale residents about the young gang members congregating on the corner or in their lobby. If they were, the police would respond the same way that they do in Harlem: by finding legal grounds to stop the gang members and let them know that they’re being watched. (For the record, the paper cited me as the other voice besides the NYPD spokesman supporting the department’s stop tactics.)
Contrary to the Times’s assumption, the fact that an identical proportion of stops of whites and blacks—10 percent—results in an arrest or summons strongly suggests that the police use the identical quantum of reasonable suspicion in stopping whites and blacks. The police stop a greater absolute number of blacks because the overwhelming majority of crime, suspicious behavior, and calls to respond to crime occurs in black neighborhoods.
Given the vast disproportion in the city’s crime rates, you can either have policing that goes after crime and saves minority lives, or you can have policing that mirrors the city’s census data. You cannot have both. If the NYPD responds to the incessant pressure from the Times and the city’s anti-cop activists to conform its policing activity to population rates, the law-abiding residents of high-crime neighborhoods will be hurt the most.
The Times’s radically incomplete front-page story, like so many that preceded it, only makes the NYPD’s job more difficult. It fuels the animosity against the police that makes witnesses less likely to cooperate with officers and suspects more likely to resist arrest. It is crime, not race, that leads to more stops in minority neighborhoods. The crime disparities in the city are deeply troubling, and thus have been regarded as taboo. But until those crime rates are acknowledged, reporting on police activity through an incomplete racial lens will continue to defame the NYPD and mislead the public about its work.