1. Is this technique useful? Yes. Street cops think so; just ask Big Cat and Gesuelli, the two Newark officers featured in The Atlantic’s April feature story,“Is Stop and Frisk Worth It?” Police administrators think so, as witnessed by the strong endorsements from former NYPD Commissioners William Bratton and Ray Kelly. Criminologists also think so. “Broken Windows,” the 1982 Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, formed the basis for today’s preventive street policing. Franklin Zimring, Chair of the Berkeley Criminal Justice Studies Program, analyzed New York City data and concluded in 2012 that the crime reduction correlated positively with the NYPD’s law enforcement strategy, which includes preventive street patrol—not with economic and sociological explanations. Accordingly, there is experiential, theoretical, and possibly empirical support for the technique’s effectiveness.
It is easy to understand why critics discount its benefit for law-abiding black residents. Offenders are arrested, convicted, sentenced, and imprisoned—events that lend themselves to statistics, photographs, and media stories. Crimes that do not occur—and people who do not become victims—are invisible. Yet the lives saved and improved by aggressive street patrol are real, even though they are unidentifiable.
2. Is this technique inherently bigoted? No. Cops of all races stop and frisk diverse suspects. Crack trafficking and violent crime are concentrated in minority communities, and, as Zimring has noted, “preventive street policing cannot be made much more colorblind than the demographic patterns of violent crime.” The law also forbids bigotry. A cop may stop and frisk a suspect only if he has a “reasonable suspicion,” based on the facts of each case, that a suspect is involved in crime or is armed. An offender’s race can help the police identify a known suspect, but his race cannot make him into a suspect. Yes, street cops sometimes make mistakes, but the Supreme Court allowed for those errors by adopting a low threshold for stops and frisks. Reasonable suspicion does not require an officer to be right, or even to be more likely right than wrong, so we should not be surprised if the police often err.
Moreover, selling crack is illegal, so offenders are discreet, not obvious. And crack dealers arm themselves because they cannot call the police if someone steals their goods or refuses to pay; violent retribution is their only recourse. Street cops therefore face potentially deadly risks when they question suspects in close quarters. The fact that police perform a high number of frisks without discovering any weapons can be more likely attributed to caution than racism.
3. How can we prevent this technique from being used oppressively? The remedy is not to outlaw the technique but to take these four steps.