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When Costs and Benefits Can’t Be Separated

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books and culture

When Costs and Benefits Can’t Be Separated

The dean of Chicago criminology offers an authoritative look at the police department’s practice of checking civilians for weapons. January 12, 2023
Public safety

Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago, by Wesley Skogan (Oxford University Press, $99)

Few policies are as divisive as “stop-and-frisk,” the police practice of stopping civilians, questioning them, and checking them for weapons whenever the law might plausibly allow—and sometimes when it doesn’t. To its detractors, stop-and-frisk is an authoritarian practice, motivated by often-overt racism and incompatible with civil liberties. To proponents, it is a major reason that America’s cities became and remained safe after the 1990s, and attacks on it have helped drive the nationwide crime spike.

Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago, the new book from criminologist Wesley Skogan, represents a careful, scholarly intervention in this heated debate. It investigates stop-and-frisk as what Skogan calls “an organizational strategy,” a primary means for controlling crime in big cities. Readers from both sides of the debate would do well to pick it up—few treatments of the topic are more thorough. Skogan, a professor emeritus of political science at Northwestern, could rightly be called the dean of Chicago criminology. When he writes about that city’s policing strategy, it’s worth paying attention.

More so even than New York, where stop-and-frisk as a strategy arguably originated, Chicago offers a valuable case study for understanding the practice. At its peak, the city was conducting more than 700,000 stops a year—more than New York City ever did, though New York is three times the size of Chicago. Seventy-two percent of Chicagoans, and 79 percent of black Chicagoans, report having been stopped by the police, many of them more than once.

The scale of Chicago’s stop-and-frisk program at its peak was not accidental. Elected mayor in 2012, Rahm Emanuel had won in part on a platform of bringing violent crime under control. To accomplish this goal, Emanuel and his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, pressured the CPD to expand dramatically its use of stop-and-frisks. Officers faced ever-escalating stop quotas, and captains were interrogated about their stop numbers at department-wide COMPSTAT meetings.

But in 2016, stops plummeted. First, the ACLU reached a landmark settlement with the CPD constraining its use of the practice. Then, the release of the video of Laquan McDonald’s death set the city on fire, driving first McCarthy and then (arguably) Emanuel from office. In 2021, the CPD conducted fewer than 70,000 stops, down 90 percent from its 2014 peak.

As stops fell, homicides and shootings surged. Some have dubbed this increase the “ACLU effect,” because it followed the settlement and ensuing collapse of stop-and-frisk. Others suggest that the change was a coincidence, that the jump was unrelated to the reduction in stops.

The costs of stop-and-frisks—especially at the scale Chicago was pursuing them—are well known. Skogan details how widespread stops fell disproportionately on black Chicagoans, and how negative encounters significantly reduced trust in the police, contributing to hostility between officers and community. It is hard not to see a connection between the scale of Chicago’s stop-and-frisk regime and the intensity of protests after the McDonald video, when thousands of Chicagoans took to the streets.

But stop-and-frisk brought substantial benefits, too, at least by Skogan’s reckoning and at least in Chicago. Between 2016 and 2018, more than one in four stops led to some kind of police action—a citation or notice to appear, for example—including 14 percent that led to arrests. Police found an illegal gun in about 1 percent of stops and 3 percent of frisks, a small number relatively, but equivalent to roughly 7,000 guns, or about 35 percent of all guns seized in Chicago in the period. In an elaborate regression analysis, involving many controls, Skogan estimates that every 7,000 or so stops was associated with one fewer murder in the city, and about six fewer shootings. That’s equivalent to about four murders a month, an 8 percent reduction.

One can quibble over design, and other studies have found different effects. But take Skogan’s analysis at face value and stop-and-frisk starts to look pretty good. Skogan estimates that each stop takes cops about ten minutes, and that each officer costs the city about $152,000 per year, or about $12 for every 10 minutes of a 2,080-hour working year. That means (very roughly) that each murder prevented by stops costs the city about $86,000—far shy of the estimated $7.9 million in social cost imposed by a homicide.

This kind of crude cost–benefit analysis, in fairness, can be contorted to produce almost any estimate. Among other things, it does not factor in the cost of harmful stops, either to the individuals stopped or to broader expectations that law-abiding civilians be left alone. But it does emphasize that that cost would have to be pretty substantial to offset the real benefits stop-and-frisk seemed to bring to Chicago.

Skogan’s book does not draw this conclusion explicitly. But in its sober presentation of the history, costs, and benefits of stop-and-frisk, it gives the reader insight into the basic dilemma of the underlying “operational strategy.” The tactic takes guns off the streets and saves lives and limbs. It also profoundly alienates many innocent citizens. And, as Skogan notes, the evidence suggests that we cannot have one without the other.

Stop-and-frisk strategies could almost certainly be more targeted. Policing by quota has almost never gone well, which is why today’s best departments tend to avoid it. And more narrowly focusing police resources on the small subset of offenders who commit the majority of crime, a strategy called “focused deterrence,” has been shown to reduce crime moderately, if unevenly.

But focused deterrence is not, as Skogan writes, “a silver bullet.” It relies on collecting detailed information about high-frequency offenders, exactly the sort of practice that activists and courts have successfully stymied, including in Chicago. And it is “unlikely to make much of a difference in the class and race distribution of individuals involved,” per Skogan, thus opening it up to exactly the same charges of unacceptable racial bias.

More targeted variations on stop-and-frisk, or policing in general, can go only so far in resolving the basic tension between safety versus fairness. The 9,544 stops the NYPD reported in 2020, down 98 percent from the peak, were still far too many for the activists’ tastes. For some, any proactive policing is an intolerable deprivation of civil liberties, no matter the cost in lives. This is particularly galling because the lives saved when stop-and-frisk takes guns off the street are disproportionately the same poor, black or Hispanic residents with whose well-being activists profess to be so concerned.

But if stop-and-frisk can be done smarter, then the takeaway from Stop & Frisk is that it should be done. Of course, it comes with costs, easy to measure and splash across the front page. But it brings benefits too, in lives not lost and bodies not shattered. And those benefits are worth quite a lot, even if some would prefer to ignore them.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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