Written by Heather Mac Donald
As the 1990s came to a close, the criminology profession declared that New York’s recent crime free fall was over. Homicides had declined a remarkable 72 percent over the previous decade, but that trend couldn’t possibly continue, the academy opined. “It is probable that another crime wave will engulf the City in the near future,” warned Andrew Karmen, a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in 2000.
Karmen and his colleagues were right about the end of the crime drop; they just had the wrong city. The national crime decline, which had been only half as steep as New York’s, did stall in the 2000s, and in many places—such as Boston, once seen as a crime-fighting rival to New York—lawlessness shot back up.
Only in the Big Apple did crime keep falling: from 2001 to 2012, murders went down an additional 36 percent and major felonies another 31 percent. Even the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression couldn’t reverse the city’s crime drop, as the criminology professoriate had predicted it would.
New York’s triumph over crime triggered the city’s rebirth in the 1990s, with the most powerful benefits flowing to low-income neighborhoods newly liberated from fear. Maintaining the public’s sense of security is the absolute precondition for future economic vitality. You’d think, therefore, that the next mayor would ponder long and hard before doing anything that might jeopardize this supreme accomplishment. Yet the Democratic mayoral candidates have been competing to out-demagogue one another regarding the New York Police Department, accusing it of racism and calling for fundamental change in how it responds to crime. Even if the next mayor turns out to be fully committed to keeping the NYPD on course, he and his police commissioner will probably face a new legal environment that will constrain the department’s ability to maintain public safety. Figuring out how to function in that environment will be their first challenge.
A key element of the NYPD’s operations is stopping and questioning individuals whom officers suspect of being involved in criminal activity. These discretionary stops embody the department’s core philosophy: to avert crime before it happens, rather than merely respond after the fact by making an arrest. Street stops are a beat officer’s most important tool for lowering crime, one that allows him to use his powers of observation and knowledge of local crime conditions to change behavior. If a commercial strip has been experiencing a rash of bodega holdups, say, and an officer notices two young men pacing nervously in front of a corner store, he may approach them and ask a few questions. If he has reason to think that they are armed, he may frisk them. Even if that stop doesn’t result in an arrest, it may deter a crime—if the two men were casing the location on behalf of an armed partner, for example.
The NYPD’s support for such proactive policing, along with its sophisticated crime-data analysis and passion for accountability, is responsible for New York’s unparalleled safety today. Indeed, suspects have told police that they’re leaving their guns at home for fear of being stopped. The rate at which New York City teens carried guns in 2011 was at its lowest point ever and far lower than in any other major American city, according to the Centers for Disease Control—a finding that helps explain why the homicide rate for Chicago teens, for instance, is four times that of New York teens.
But for the last decade and a half, anti-cop advocates and their political allies have assailed discretionary stops as racist because the vast majority of stop subjects are black and Hispanic. This argument ignores the reality that the vast majority of criminals and victims are also black and Hispanic. Given that fact, the police cannot deploy their resources to the neighborhoods where law-abiding residents most need protection without producing racially disparate stop and arrest data. The NYPD’s stop rate for blacks is actually lower than their representation among known violent offenders. Blacks, who constitute 23 percent of the city’s population, committed 66 percent of all violent crimes in 2011, according to victims and witnesses, and 73 percent of all shootings—but they were only 53 percent of all stop subjects. By contrast, whites, who constitute 35 percent of the city’s population, committed 6 percent of all violent crimes and 3 percent of all shootings. They made up 9 percent of all stops.
Nevertheless, the city’s activists and political class are convinced that the NYPD has a vendetta against minorities. In 2008, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the elite law firm Covington & Burling sued the police department, charging that its stop, question, and frisk practices were unconstitutional. According to the lawsuit, the department imposes draconian stop and arrest quotas on its officers, who are therefore forced to target patently innocent blacks and Hispanics for groundless stops. The evidence presented in the federal courtroom when Floyd v. New York finally came to trial this spring didn’t come close to establishing the plaintiffs’ case. But U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin’s rulings to date in Floyd and in the three other anti–stop and frisk lawsuits that she has overseen suggest that she is almost certain to find against the city, a decision likely to come in early summer (see “Courts v. Cops,” Winter 2013).
A federal judge’s declaration that the NYPD willfully abuses minorities would be destructive in its own right, leading to an increase in the street hostility directed at cops and a loss of officer morale. But the legal remedies likely to be imposed on the department would be even worse. The attorneys in Floyd are asking Scheindlin to saddle the department with a consent decree and to authorize an avalanche of entities to help her enforce it: a court-appointed monitor, a “facilitator,” a panel of “policing and statistical experts,” and a group of “community stakeholders.” These bodies would develop new rules regarding stops and any other activities that the monitor deemed relevant. The monitor would undoubtedly adopt the plaintiffs’ faulty methodology to determine whether the NYPD was engaged in racial profiling—comparing stop rates with population rates rather than with crime rates—thus guaranteeing that the department would continue to be held in violation of the consent decree and in need of ongoing federal oversight, even beyond the monitor’s minimum five-year term.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg will appeal any adverse ruling in Floyd to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals; that court wouldn’t render a decision before the November election. Nevertheless, the mayoral candidates will have to take a stand on whether, if elected, they would settle the suit or continue litigating it. They will also have to say what they would do if the Second Circuit reversed Scheindlin’s ruling.
If the NYPD does get slapped with a Floyd consent decree, the financial costs of compliance will be staggering. To comply with a federal consent decree imposed in 2001, the Los Angeles Police Department, an agency one-third the size of the NYPD, was at one point spending between $40 million and $50 million annually and pulling 350 officers off the street to meet the decree’s mountainous paperwork requirements (see “Chief Bratton Takes On L.A.,” Autumn 2003). The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Covington & Burling attorneys have not suggested which NYPD functions should be abandoned to fund a Floyd consent decree. But the biggest costs will be to the next commissioner’s ability to continue the preventive policing that has given the city the longest and steepest crime drop on record.
Remarkably, the New York City Council has ensured that the NYPD will lose its managerial autonomy even if the NYPD wins Floyd. The council, with the blessing of mayoral contender and speaker Christine Quinn, is set to create an inspector general for the department, a preposterously unnecessary position when officer use of force is at an all-time low, no major corruption scandals have erupted in two decades, and the NYPD is widely recognized as a model of professionalism. The new bureaucracy, which will suck up millions of taxpayer dollars a year, is being created not to fight corruption—the usual task of an inspector general—but to curtail stop, question, and frisk. And unlike a court-imposed monitor, the inspector general’s office will last indefinitely, muddying a clear chain of command in a department where accountability is key.
Other pending bills, such as a measure to facilitate lawsuits against the NYPD under an ignorantly sweeping definition of racial profiling, are nearly as destructive. If they don’t pass with a veto-proof majority in this council, they probably will in the next, which looks likely to be even more left-wing.
All this makes it imperative for the next mayor to learn how the police department has actually been using its stop power, and Floyd’s voluminous trial transcript would be a good place to start. Lead plaintiff David Floyd, presumably the clearest victim of race-based oppression that the attorneys could find, was stopped in February 2008 outside his home in the South Bronx. (Floyd is an activist with the Black Panther–inspired Copwatch, as well as a member of a black nationalist group that pledges solidarity with late Venezuelan “revolutionary leader” Hugo Chávez. Floyd and the Center for Constitutional Rights had already sued the police on a civil rights claim when the organization named him lead plaintiff in its class-action litigation.) In the months preceding Floyd’s 2008 stop, there had been several burglary patterns in his precinct. Three officers observed Floyd and another man jostling the door of a basement apartment, unsuccessfully trying a series of keys on a large key chain; one of the men kept looking over his shoulder at the street.
According to the plaintiffs, the officers could have had no reason other than racism to approach and ask the two men what they were doing, despite actions that looked consistent with a home invasion in an area that had recently been prey to such crimes. (In fact, Floyd’s downstairs neighbor had locked himself out of his apartment, and Floyd had picked up the landlady’s keys to help him get back in.) If Floyd’s was an unconstitutional stop, the department might as well give up trying to prevent crime and let the community fend for itself.
Nicholas Peart, a 24-year-old “facilitator” for a Harlem youth program, was added to the Floyd suit late in the game, following the Center for Constitutional Rights’s otherwise unsuccessful effort in 2012 to bulk up its case. According to an op-ed that Peart wrote for the New York Times after he joined the litigation, he was stopped on the night of his 18th birthday while sitting on a bench at Broadway and 96th Street in Manhattan with two friends. Squad cars pulled up and an officer yelled, “Get on the ground!” Peart then found himself on the ground, he wrote, with a gun pointed at him. The officer removed Peart’s wallet from his pocket to check his ID; sarcastically said, “Happy birthday,” after noticing his birth date; and then left after briefly questioning Peart’s companions.
What Peart didn’t mention in his op-ed was that the officer had just received a radio call reporting that three men with a gun in the immediate vicinity had been overheard planning a robbery and that one of the suspects was described as wearing a tank top and blue shorts. Peart was in a tank top and blue shorts. The officer had even replayed the radio call to Peart and his friends to explain his actions. Moreover, the officer had unholstered his gun only after the group repeatedly disobeyed his command to get on the ground. Plaintiffs’ counsel apparently believe that if someone matches the description of a gun suspect, officers should wait until a victim is actually shot before acting on the call. If the judge agrees, she will be disregarding the law-abiding residents of crime-plagued communities who support proactive policing but are not represented in Floyd.
The next mayor shouldn’t make that mistake. He should talk to people like Ivan De Bord, a youthful apartment superintendent in the South Bronx. De Bord was stopped many times when he was a teen. “When you’re young, you react a little different, but it’s obvious that they always have a reason to stop. I can see that in my work at the building,” he says. “They know who’s who.” Are the cops overaggressive? “Now that I see the area here, I understand why they’re aggressive sometimes.” De Bord was stunned at the crime and disorder in the Bronx when he moved from Manhattan for his current job: “I was in shock. It’s insane; I’ve never seen anything like it.” De Bord’s building has been colonized by a group of former tenants who hang out in the lobby “smoking [weed], selling drugs, peeing everywhere, not respecting people, playing dice,” he says. “It’s very bad. A lot of the tenants are scared; they don’t want to live in the building any longer.” After Judge Scheindlin ruled against the city in a related stop, question, and frisk case in January 2013, the cops backed off from proactive policing, De Bord reports, but things have been slowly returning to normal. “The police could modify [the stop program] a little bit, but I’m totally with them stopping and searching. It’s one of best things they have.”
Dorrien Christiani, a dapper former mail carrier, began attending community council meetings at the 28th Precinct two years ago, worried about drug dealing outside the methadone clinics in his Central Harlem neighborhood. Asked if the cops are overaggressive, he raises his eyebrows over his wire-rimmed glasses. “So I’ve heard,” he responds skeptically. “I feel the NYPD does an excellent job. You have some good cops and some mediocre cops, as in all occupations.” Earl Cleveland, a retired bus driver who lives in the South Bronx, has a simple message for the next mayor: “Public safety, I consider that Number One. The city shouldn’t take a chance. You cannot turn your back on crime; it’s here. You need law enforcement, and they should make stops.”
Perhaps younger people have a different perspective? Some do; others don’t. Creash, a roly-poly 13-year-old, is waiting for a bus in East Flatbush, Brooklyn; over the previous three nights, rioters have looted and trashed stores near the bus stop in response to a fatal police shooting of a 16-year-old gang member named Kimani Gray. Gray had pointed a pistol at the officers; it was recovered at the scene. “I feel safer with the police,” Creash says. “There’s a whole bunch of gangbangers around my school. That’s why the police are over there. When I see an officer, I be like: ‘Hey, good job!’ ” A tall 15-year-old from the Caribbean named Mikey is striding past the 67th Precinct’s police station, another target of the Flatbush rioters the night before. “The police leave me alone because I’m a good kid,” he says.
The advocates regularly attack the NYPD’s enforcement of quality-of-life laws, especially those prohibiting marijuana. And who might be asking for such enforcement? People like Johnny, a young man in the South Bronx who complained to a 41st Precinct community council meeting in March about a “stench” of marijuana whenever he left his building. At the same meeting, a young woman reported that people were loitering around the back exit of a nightclub in her neighborhood: “They be smokin’ weed, playin’ music, a lot of stuff happens.” The 41st Precinct is 98 percent black and Hispanic. If the police respond to these requests for public order by questioning or arresting the people about whom the community is complaining, they cannot help but generate racial stop data that the Center for Constitutional Rights will use against them. But if the next mayor listens to the advocates and cuts back on quality-of-life enforcement on the ground that it has a disparate racial impact, he will betray the upstanding poor who yearn for the same lawful environment that affluent residents take for granted.
If the Floyd decision leaves the mayor with any discretion in the matter, he will have to wade into the vexed issue of whether the department may, like any other employer, set performance goals for its officers—including exceedingly modest numerical targets for arrests, summons, and stops. Impugning every effort by NYPD supervisors to make sure that officers were actually working, plaintiffs’ counsel in Floyd seemed to agree with the patrolmen’s union that every officer is a self-starting font of eager activity who needs no managerial prodding. Here again, the next mayor would do well to read the trial transcript to get the real story. He would learn about the ceiling that squads set on their own activity and the stigma that they direct against officers who exceed it. When Michael Marino, today a deputy chief, took over Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct in 2002, he found that each of the station’s 400 officers wrote exactly five summonses a month and no more. If an officer finished his five in the first week, he spent the rest of the month simply driving around in his squad car. The officers’ activity level was so low, Marino testified, that it was “actually a detriment to the community. It was doing nothing to improve the conditions in what was probably one of the most crime-ridden violent precincts in the city.”
Under current state law, the department may establish numerical goals for its officers, so long as an officer suffers no “adverse employment action” for not meeting them. In truth, a goal with no consequences is meaningless, and the union-backed law has inevitably led to some semantic game playing by management. To its credit, however, the department continues to embrace unapologetically the principle that supervisors, in the words of a 2011 operations order, “can and must” set performance goals to make sure that officers “engage in proactive policing [to address] crime conditions and public safety concerns.”
The advocates speciously claim that this expectation leads to the harassment of blacks and Hispanics, but the trial showed that the department’s motivation in setting numerical targets is precisely the opposite: to protect the city’s most vulnerable residents. As Marino told Brooklyn’s 79th Precinct in 2008: “These little dots on the wall aren’t numbers; they are people that had bad things happen to them. And I don’t think any of us, morally or professionally, should reconcile himself” to such victimization.
Maintaining that sense of urgency about crime fighting is Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s and Mayor Bloomberg’s greatest accomplishment, for it is the hardest thing for a department to sustain over time. The next administration should support performance monitoring, if it retains the authority to do so after Judge Scheindlin is through with the department.
There is still, however, some unfinished business in the NYPD. The most disturbing aspect of the Floyd testimony was reports of officers’ making snide comments to the people they stopped. These allegations point to a perennial problem: how to prevent officers from developing a rude and hardened demeanor, often as a reaction to the abuse that they get from criminals and their supporters. Keeping cops polite would go a long way toward tamping down resentment against them—animus that the city’s politicians and activists have done their best to inflame. But every police commissioner since at least Howard Safir in the late 1990s has stressed officers’ duty to be courteous and respectful (see “How to Train Cops,” Autumn 2000), and it’s far from clear how to make that message stick.
The next mayoral administration will somehow have to convey better that proactive stops are driven by the desire to save minority lives. That only 47 percent of likely voters in a Manhattan Institute / Zogby poll disapprove of stop, question, and frisk, compared with 46 percent who approve, is actually a testament to the strong well of support for proactive tactics, given the incessant agitation against stops. (And two-thirds of voters approve of the way the New York police are doing their job, a more telling response than the reaction to the fraught question of stops.)
Perhaps the department could display a map at every press conference showing the geographic and racial dispersion of crime and the corresponding overlay of police activity. It might point out, for example, that the per-capita rate of shooting in Brownsville, Brooklyn, is 81 times higher than in Bay Ridge, which explains why the stop rate in Brownsville is 15 times higher. But it will face the same prejudiced press corps that the current administration does, so it’s not clear how much progress can be made on this front, either.
Yet even as the department rightly defends proactive policing, it may find a way to modify it modestly without harming public safety. Any New York police commissioner in 2013 faces a dilemma: how to keep crime going down when it is already below what anyone would have believed possible two decades ago and when the most obvious inefficiencies in the department have long since been wrung out. Pressing harder on the same levers, however, including stops, may be yielding diminishing returns. Deciding whether and how to alter New York’s successful crime-fighting formula will be the most difficult task facing NYPD top brass.
Ideally, officers would receive more on-the-job training in the nitty-gritty of street enforcement—not, as the Floyd litigation demands, in self-evident bromides about racial profiling. Rookie officers on the beat in high-crime areas—the core of Kelly’s Impact Zone program—could benefit from closer collaboration with seasoned veterans. But if funding for more training and supervision were readily available, it would have already been put to that purpose.
Politicians’ perennial vow to hire more officers faces the same grim budget reality: the money simply isn’t there, unless the city makes fundamental changes to its traditional social-welfare and employee-pension priorities. What is certain is that the compliance costs of a Floyd consent decree and the expense of an inspector general’s office would hurt the department’s ability to provide better training and oversight.
The new mayor should take a hard look at the NYPD’s current practice of taking 200 officers off the street each day to perform a counterterrorism drill; stripping precinct commands of scarce manpower may not be essential to the department’s mission of fighting terrorism. But Kelly’s farsighted technology initiatives should be continued and, if possible, accelerated.
These include analyzing social media and various electronic databases to predict and solve crimes and installing public cameras and license-plate readers at key spots in the city. The New York Civil Liberties Union may still object to public cameras after video footage helped apprehend the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing this past April, but few non-ideologues share its opposition.
If the next mayor opts for a new commissioner, race and sex should play no role in the selection. New York residents deserve the best policing talent available.
Today’s New Yorkers enjoy the luxury of oblivion. Many recent transplants to the city have no recollection of the anarchy that was once the norm (see “What Is a Mayor’s Job?” on the following page). It is tempting to believe that the transformation to orderly streets is permanent.
But while New York policing has effected a behavior change among the residents likeliest to break the law, crime could shoot back up if the police stop sending the constant message that there are consequences for antisocial actions. It’s crucial for the next mayor to grasp how much heroic effort has gone into the city’s crime collapse and how easily that victory could be undone.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She is the author of The Burden of Bad Ideas and Are Cops Racist?: How the War Against the Police Harms Black Americans.