'Stop And Frisk' Works, But It's Problematic

Guest

Richard Cohen, columnist, Washington Post. Read his piece, "The Invasive Police Strategy that Pacified New York City"

The New York City Police Department credits its controversial "Stop, Question, Frisk" program with significantly reducing violent crimes. Many civil liberties groups, though, warn that the police stops disproportionately target black and Hispanic men, and believe the searches are unconstitutional.

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The New York City police reported that its officers stopped and frisked almost 700,000 people last year, which prompted a fresh round of protests over the controversial policy. In today's Washington Post, Richard Cohen writes that these questionable tactics have to be measured against their effects. New York City is heaven on earth, he wrote, possibly because it is a certain kind of hell for young black and Hispanic men. Do results justify questionable police tactics?

800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Richard Cohen joins us now from his office in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

RICHARD COHEN: Hi.

CONAN: And you cite Mayor Bloomberg who argues that, in addition to that huge number of people stopped and frisked, we need to consider the precipitous drop in the number of murders in New York City.

COHEN: Right. And he's very adamant about it. You know, the stop-and-frisk policy is - results in fewer and fewer people carrying guns on the street, fewer and fewer murders, fewer and fewer, you know, spontaneous killings, and it makes the city safer. And he goes on. He can extrapolate from that to, you know, the rehabilitation of neighborhoods, the resurrection of businesses, what it's meant for tax revenues. He talks this. This is the gospel of Bloomberg that if you can hold down crime - I mean, really hold it down, you can revive the city, and you can do marvelous things with the tax revenues.

CONAN: And it should be noted crime rates are down across the country. They're down most sharply in New York City.

COHEN: Right. For the last several years, New York has - I forget the figures - but has accounted for a huge percentage of the crime drop, nationally. I mean, if New York was just back to where it used to be in the 1980s with about 2,000 - averaging 2,000 murders a year, the crime rate, the murder rate in America would go way up again. But you have cities where the murder rate has gone back up, and New York is not one of them.

CONAN: So can you draw a direct line between stop-and-frisk and that lowered murder rate?

COHEN: I think you can. I mean, Bloomberg argues that you can. The police department argues that you can. Others argue that you can. You can't do it and argue that you don't pay a price. I mean, the price is that you are stopping and frisking people who are, on the face of it, innocent. You know, they haven't committed a crime, but it's like you've caught them mugging someone or sticking somebody up, or you just have sort of belief, based upon the way they walk or they avoid eye contact or something like that, you stop and frisk them.

Seven hundred thousand of these stop-and-frisks a year is an amazing number. I mean, it's, you know, that's more people than in Lithuania. I made that up. But it's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COHEN: You know what I mean, it's incredible. So in some areas of the city the term police state is not that much of an exaggeration.

CONAN: And so do the ends justify the means?

COHEN: You know, I don't know. I really don't know. It's a conundrum. If I were stopped and frisked, repeatedly or even once, I would be furious. It is based upon - as we all know, it's based upon race and ethnicity and youth. I mean, it's blacks and Hispanics - young men. Old ladies don't get stopped and frisked. You know, young Swedes don't get stopped and frisked. We know who gets stopped and frisked. So it's intimidating. It's infuriating. It's - it harkens back to, you know, the bad days before civil rights.

It's, you know, it troubles me. On the other hand, I don't, you know, I don't - I hate to say that the ends justifies the means, because I don't believe that and - ever. But I do say that I can see what the means are - I mean, the ends are. And I have to wonder.

CONAN: Mayor Bloomberg points out and you echo in the column that the majority of those lives saved, those who would not have been killed other than for the stop-and-frisk program - at least according to this point of view - that the vast majority of those people are Hispanic and African-American, too.

COHEN: Right. Ninety percent of what I figure - since about 90 percent of the murder - persons murdered in New York are black or Hispanic young men, that those exact - I mean, those are the people whose lives are being saved because you can extrapolate from who's getting murdered to who would have gotten murdered, I supposed, and it's young black and Hispanic men. And so - and also, you know, women and children, which is why stop-and-frisk has a certain amount of support even in neighborhoods that feel the impact because people think it makes the streets safer.

CONAN: You mentioned the phrase, police state. There are some areas and some people, as you well know, who regard this as, essentially, as an occupation.

COHEN: Right. No, I understand, and I think it's a little bit - it's purple language to call it a police state, and I probably shouldn't have used that term. But I don't feel it myself, but I can understand how you could look it at that way. And I also can understand how you can feel that the police are not your police, that they represent a force that's intimidating, that has nothing to do with you. If you're a young black male, you get stopped repeatedly. They're somebody else's police force. It's not your own police force. And that would be, I think, a natural feeling. So you would, you know, the price of this is alienation of certain people, large numbers of people, I would imagine. And that's something you have to factor in.

CONAN: Richard Cohen, columnist for The Washington Post. His latest, "The Invasive Police Strategy that Pacified New York City," in today's editions of the newspaper. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Ed. Ed is calling us from Kalamazoo.

ED: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Ed.

ED: Hi. I think it's a wonderful subject. I'm glad it's on the air today. I'm inclined to agree with your guest today. I'm a little wary of it. Just one example I gave your screener. About 10 years ago, I traveled to Chicago with a friend of mine and watched a policeman have a suspect in the backseat in broad daylight, you know, lots of people out, and commence to beat him while he was handcuffed. I watched it. I was frozen and was told, if I didn't move on, I was next. So I say, if we're going to give them the rights to search for, you know, without probable cause, where do we draw the line? I mean, I thought that line was drawn 200 and some years ago by our forefathers when they said, hey, it's better for the guilty to go free than the innocent to be imprisoned.

COHEN: Well, my answer to that is, you have to draw the line where common sense tells you to draw the line. I don't know. As I said at the onset of the program, this is a conundrum. There is no good answer here. I think if you did away with stop-and-frisk, you would clearly see an increase in crime. You would see more people carrying guns on the streets of New York, and those guns inevitably would be used because that's the nature of the thing. So you would have more people being who are killed, and you would have an increase in crime. And an increase in crime intimidates everybody. It's just has a - it's kind of a blow to the solar plexus of the city that you would have to pay for it. On the other hand, you do have real questions regarding civil rights and civil liberties, and they don't go away.

ED: Out of those 700,000 people, how many of those people frisked were actually carrying guns? Let's say that even 50,000 were carrying guns, what that means is there are still 650,000 that...

COHEN: A very small percentage were carrying...

ED: Right.

COHEN: ...but...

ED: So we're still infringing on the rights of the greater to meet a smaller need.

COHEN: Right. What the mayor argues is that the proof of the pudding is the small number of people who are carrying guns because they know if they carry a gun, they're going to be stopped, and they will be arrested, and they will go away for a long time because New York does not kid around about carrying guns. So the - if you the numbers to prove something, the lack of the guns proves that people are not carrying them and that's what he wants.

CONAN: Let's go next to Faith, and Faith on the line with us from Philadelphia.

FAITH: Yes, hi. We have stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia since 2008. And in that year, the murder rater went down only 15 percent, and then it's been creeping back up since. And it's now, you know, it was at high in 2007, when we had 391 people murdered. And then this year - I'm sorry - last year, 324 were murdered. So, you know, it hasn't really been that effective. That's my point. I don't know about New York, but Philadelphia's stop-and-frisk seems to not be worth the cost.

COHEN: Well, you know, you may be right. I would imagine - I think there were - yeah, 471 murders in New York in 2009, and it's - I don't know - two, three, four times larger than Philadelphia. So they would argue that this has been a successful program. It's not the only thing that holds down the murder rate. I mean, the police do other things, but certainly, it's an element, whether or not you could argue things would have been worse in Philadelphia had it not been for stop-and-frisk. I just don't know enough about Philadelphia except that I do like the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Faith, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

FAITH: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Richard Cohen, columnist for The Washington Post. His latest, "The Invasive Police Strategy that Pacified New York City," in today's issues of the newspaper. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And there's a link to that column at our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And Cooper's on the line with us from Toledo.

COOPER: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

COOPER: I was told to be brief, so in a kernel, we are leaving a city because of the lack of this sort of active policing. There's no baseline anymore. I mean, there are - we are leaving a good, solid neighborhood because of 12- to 22-year-olds out of control, out of check.

CONAN: And how do you define out of control?

COOPER: Gang congregations on corners, gunshots, people being pulled from cars and attacked and even jaywalking is not enforced in Toledo. So there's no - there's really no baseline to set any behavior that we all can get along with together.

CONAN: Cooper, thanks very much for the call. I don't know about what's going on in Toledo. Jaywalking, so far as I know, is the national sport in the city of New York.

COHEN: Right. Well, but, you know, I mean, he - look, that sounds like a neighborhood that is really out of control. People being pulled out of cars and beaten, that's pretty serious. I believe that when the police enforce the law, even when they seemed tedious about it, it has an effect. I think when Bratton, the police - the once-removed police commissioner in New York started to enforce fare jumpers - I mean, arrest fare jumpers in the subways, what they found was the guys who jumped the turnstiles very often were armed.

And, you know, a criminal is a criminal is a criminal, and they're always breaking the law one way or the other. So if you can get them on one law, you got them. And the little stuff starts to add up. You make sure that they don't carry guns. You make sure that they're not jumping the turnstile. You make sure the guy who jumps the turnstile, you take the gun from and you put him in jail. Or if he doesn't have a gun, he may be, you know, I don't know. He may have a broken parole or was something of that sort. You got to start enforcing the law, and I think that's the responsibility of the police.

What I fear is that in New York and other cities is that we're so accustomed, after several years of low crime rate, that we'll forget these lessons that we learned the hard way in the 1980s when a lot of cities - look, I used to live in Washington. So I live in Washington. I live in New York. I lived in two garden cities when it came to crime, and you've got to bear down on this thing always because if you don't, it'll come back and just grab you by the neck.

CONAN: And whatever technique may be working. In fact, police departments are getting budget cuts like much of the rest of - not just municipal, but state and federal government.

COHEN: Right. I mean, across the board, there have been budget cuts so - but I mean, it's - it takes determination and you - as I said, you've got, you know, you got to use common sense. You've got to say - and what bothers me is people who forget what it was once like in major American cities. And also, look upon this a racist policy because the majority of people who are stopped and frisked are either one race or one ethnic group, forgetting, of course, that's where the majority of victims are and also the majority of perpetrators. So you just can't - you can't judge it by one set of statistics, which is these are the people who are being stopped. You have to look at why they're being stopped, and does the stop make any sense? Is it rational or not rational? To my mind, it's rational but disturbing. What can I say? I can't do better than that.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. Mike's on the line with us from Limerick in Pennsylvania.

MIKE: How are you doing there, sir?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

MIKE: I'm a former policeman. Ten years ago, I was a policeman in Philadelphia, and I just - I think that this is like a reasonable process and not because the ends justifies the mean, but if a police officer's in an area where he sees that there's some kind of reasonable suspicion or there's something afoot, that he's got a responsibility, a general responsibility to protect the area. And if this is proving a result and people are using good judgment and common sense in that reasonable suspicion, and the result's good, it's not even a question to me.

CONAN: And you're not troubled by not just one in area, but citywide in New York City, that the number of those stopped is wildly out of proportion for the population at large, that the percentages for those who are African-American and Hispanic is hugely greater than their percentage in the population?

COHEN: Right. But the...

MIKE: So if you look at the city overall - I mean, I know from being a policeman in the past that when you look at an area, if the area was highly one group, whether it was white, black, Asian, whatever, you're going to see the numbers in that area for the stops are highly towards that area.

CONAN: No. I get that part, but, Richard Cohen, the problem comes when the statistics are applied citywide.

COHEN: Right. Well, you can't use it. I mean, I don't think it's - it makes sense to compare it citywide. You have to look where the crime is being committed...

MIKE: Absolutely.

COHEN: ...and direct your attention there. I think what this former officer was saying is exactly what the Bloomberg administration and police department says. They don't go after people willy-nilly and just stop them on the street - look - because they, you know, they feel like it. They look to see behavior. They look to see, you know, they're street cops. They're supposed to be able to ferret out people who look suspicious. They look suspicious. They go - now, do they stop people who aren't suspicious? You bet. I mean, it's just human nature. Maybe there's a quota to this system, too, and they stop people, you know, because they - they're supposed to because they need to meet a certain target. I don't know if (unintelligible).

MIKE: I've never heard of a quota in my life. You hear all these quotas, they're in fairyland. And I can tell you that the people in these communities - well, I mean, we don't have stop-and-frisk, but the people in the communities, when they see active cops on the street trying to make the place better, I think that the general populace at large appreciates and I...

CONAN: All right there, Mike. Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And thank you, Richard Cohen, for your time today.

COHEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Again, there's a link to his piece at our website, npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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