New York’s Stop and Frisk Ethical Dilemma

The problem with racial profiling is that it is wrong and unfair, but it works.

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

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

11 thoughts on “New York’s Stop and Frisk Ethical Dilemma

  1. 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.

    So.. I assume, then, that this means you’re cool with TSA frisking babies and old farts in wheelchairs?

    • While I agree completely with the sentiment (IMO, most of TSA’s efforts are directed at the appearance of security rather than actual security), violent crime and terrorism are fundamentally different. Crime is committed for intended benefit of the criminal. Terrorism is usually a “one-shot” deal that kills the terrorist for the benefit of his cause.

      Security screening at airports must be truly random, otherwise it broadcasts to the whole world “If you recruit this type of person, you’ll get through security unchallenged 100% of the time.” (…which is not to say that we aren’t already doing that.)

      Babies? OF COURSE a baby is not a terrorist. But would a terrorist USE a baby to get through security? ABSOLUTELY.


  2. Figure out what the cost of the law suit will be, and hand out vouchers worth half as much to people that were searched and not arrested. Make it like a lottery, some vouchers are good for a Broadway show, others for a Big Gulp, er, I mean, a head of lettuce. Make them transferable. Heck, just make it a regular lottery ticket. People will be lining up to be searched. (Of course if everyone started acting “suspiciously”, it might ruin a good thing)

  3. if Roughly 50 % of crime is commited by y and y only makes up say 35% of the population it makes.sense that y would be the most frequently challenged.
    profiling whether its racial or sexual, or based on tattoos, and hair color, is effective. I dont see how, its unethical if statistics back it up.
    Most serial killers are white males, why waste time and resources finding equal amounts Asian and Mexican male.and.female suspects, if the odds are greatly in favor of one combination. That waste seems far more unethical to me then playing the odds.

  4. The more I think about this, the more I keep coming around to this:

    The only unethical thing in play here is whatever the root cause is that results in such a disproportionate amount of violent crimes being committed by a particular race. Destroy THAT, and the rest of the argument fall apart–which Jack himself even alluded to at the beginning of the last paragraph.

    And yes, I understand why race is special consideration: it’s something that you can’t reasonably change* or fake (like you easily could with your actions, manner of dress, where you hang out, etc.) to avoid being stopped and frisked.


    * “White Hispanics” notwithstanding

  5. The end can never be used to justify the means – if Bloomberg said that, shame on him. However, it is perilous to simplify policing strategy down to statistics. The demographics of the city of New York (or the entire U.S., which was also cited in the source article) may bear no resemblance at all to the neighborhoods and time of day that a majority of these stops are made.

    Also, it has been pointed out here that white males are more likely to be serial killers and that young black males are disproportionately represented in violent crime, facts like these make it inevitable that lawful and ethical criminal profiling (behavior analysis, in FBI speak) is going to consider race on some level. This makes criminal profiling, which takes an array of factors into consideration and is essential to law enforcement, appear biased by race even when it may not be at all.

    You say, “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.”

    I disagree, it does matter. Experience and data lead to good decisions, but the ethics rise and fall on the disproportionate reliance on race. Bigotry is the shortcut that leads to unconstitutional behavior by the police.

  6. Disagree completely. If one group has a seriously disproportionate propensity to commit crime, then until that group changes its behavior, it should be disproportionately profiled as potential criminals.

    If looking for terrorists, check the muslim males first.
    if looking for violent assault, check the african-americans males first.
    If looking for a serial killer, check white males first.
    If looking for shoplifters, check women first.

    Those who say it is sexism/racism are ignoring the statistics. If you’re a neighborhood watch member and your neighborhood has had recent break-ins by young black men, then you keep a hairy eyeball on the young black men wandering your neighborhood.

    This is just horse sense. My response to the people who cry racism is to say, “When you as a member of the targeted group have reduced your group’s propensity to commit crime, we will stop giving you added scrutiny.”

    Bigotry only enters into the equation when race is the only, or the prime, factor in profiling. It should not be. But it SHOULD be a contributing factor, because it IS a statistically proven one.

  7. This isn’t a legitimate law. It’s a codified violation of the 4th amendment. There’s no need to argue about whether this policy is discriminatory as it’s blatantly unconstitutional.

  8. The following facts are indisputable:

    * Our heavily militarized Police force is effectively laying siege to black neighborhoods. This is not happening with the same force and zeal in predominantly white neighborhoods.

    * (2009) Afro-Americans do not use drugs at a perceivable higher rate (9.6%) than white Americans (8.8%) Source:

    * Afro-Americans are being stopped and searched at a far higher frequency than white Americans.

    * Afro-Americans represent just 12.2 % of the population but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses.

    * Afro-Americans comprise 53% of drug convictions but are just 12.2% of the population.

    * Afro-Americans comprise 67 percent of all people imprisoned for drug offenses but are just 12.2% of the population.

    * One out of three young African American (ages 18 to 35) men are in prison or on some form of supervised release.

    * There are more African American men in prison than in college. That’s a four times higher percentage of Black men in prison than South Africa at the height of apartheid. 

    In July 2011 The NAACP passed an “historic” resolution, calling for an end to drug prohibition. Very soon, many other civic organizations, the entire faith community and all persons of good conscience will join the many who are already demanding that this horrific assault on the African-American community be halted immediately. What about YOU?

    Whatever the exact dynamics involved, these racial disparities are a direct result of drug-prohibition and are quite clearly unacceptable. This dangerous and costly moronothon has done nothing but result in generations of incarcerated and disenfranchised Afro Americans. Any citizen not doing their utmost to help reverse this perverse injustice may duly hang their head in shame.

    “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”
    – Martin Luther King Jr

    “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
    – Desmond Tutu


      Blacks are seven times more likely than people of other races to commit murder, and eight times more likely to commit robbery.

      Hispanics commit violent crimes at roughly three times the white rate.

      Of the nearly 770,000 violent interracial crimes committed every year involving blacks and whites, blacks commit 85 percent and whites commit 15 percent.

      Blacks are an estimated 39 times more likely to commit a violent crime against a white than vice versa, and 136 times more likely to commit robbery.

      Blacks are 2.25 times more likely to commit officially-designated hate crimes against whites than vice versa.

      Only 10 percent of youth gang members are white.

      Hispanics are 19 times more likely than whites to be members of youth gangs. Blacks are 15 times more likely, and Asians are nine times more likely.

      Blacks are seven times more likely to be in prison than whites. Hispanics are three times more likely.

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