Crime rates, especially gun-related killings, have dropped precipitously in New York City since Mayor Bloomberg approved an aggressive “stop and frisk” policy. Stop and frisk, where police are allowed to stop, question and pat down an individual whom the officer has reasonable suspicion may be involved in the commission of a crime, was approved by the Supreme Court long ago. The rub is that, as documented by the ACLU, New York cops seem to automatically find blacks (54%) and Hispanics (31%) suspicious, as they account for 85% of those stopped. Bloomberg is under fire to ease up on the program, which he says demonstrably saves lives, even though the vast majority of those stopped and frisked are innocent. Bloomberg, using statistics derived from pre-policy shooting deaths and the numbers of illegal guns the frisks have discovered, told the press that 5,600 New Yorkers live today because of police suspicions.
Let’s assume he’s in the ball park, though such speculations are notoriously unreliable. It is reasonable to conclude that the aggressive stop and frisk policy has indeed lowered crime rates. The mayor cannot deny, however, that his policy necessarily involves racial profiling to some extent. African-Americans, for many reasons, commit about half of all crimes, despite constituting a far lower percentage of the general population. This means, among other things, that the chances that a randomly selected black man is engaged in criminal activity are higher than the chances that a randomly selected white man is. Police know that, so in a real sense, “walking while black” does add to their suspicion, and when that suspicion is added to other factors—the individual looking around furtively, a high crime area, a suspicious bulge under a coat—the total amount of suspicion may well meet the Supreme Court’s standards.
Ultimately, however, Bloomberg’s defense comes down to one familiar and alarming phrase: “the ends justify the means.” No group of Americans should be special targets of the police based on the color of their skin no matter what the crime statistics say, and no law-abiding American should be treated as inherently suspicious because his race tips the scales of suspicion toward a police intrusion. We should be candid and honest about that fact that racial profiling can save lives, but that even saving lives isn’t enough to justify trouncing on a demographic group’s civil rights.
There is a slippery slope here, and many on the left, including Eric Holder’s Justice Department, have been sliding. The fact that a legitimate law disproportionately affects one racial group or another does not make it racist, as long as the law is equally applied and enforced. This is what is so offensive about Holder’s attempt to block voter ID laws, and his even more offensive rhetoric condemning them as civil rights violations. (I live in the D.C. area, and I have to show a photo ID to get into the building where Holder works. If that’s not racist, neither is requiring ID for a crucial act like casting a vote, in which establishing identity is also important.) The stop and frisk program in New York City, however, is not race blind: race plays a part in the officers’ calculations whether a citizen should be frisked or not. Sometimes those calculations are based on experience, sometimes bigotry. It doesn’t matter which. In America, race shouldn’t be a handicap or evidence of bad character.
How do we fix the problem? Well, it would help if African-Americans committed fewer crimes…then race would no longer be a valid component of suspicion. In the meantime, however, unless Bloomberg and his police can develop a stop and frisk approach in which race and ethnicity doesn’t make individuals a target, his program should be curtailed. It may work, but working doesn’t make it right—not in a nation built of the principles of equal justice under the law, no matter how many lives it saves.
Graphic: Friends of Justice
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