Ray Kelly on Stop-and-Frisk: You saved HOW many lives?

NYC’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wrote a piece for today’s WSJ titled “The NYPD: Guilty of Saving 7,383 Lives” and subtitled “Accusations of racial profiling ignore the fact that violent crime overwhelmingly occurs in minority neighborhoods.” In it, he makes a great case for the fact that his cherished stop-and-frisk program is not effective policing, and may in fact lead to more crime.

That’s not his intent, of course. His purpose is to defend the NYPD’s much-maligned stop-and-frisk program (and also its surveillance of political dissidents). He doesn’t succeed. In fact, he does a great job of discrediting himself right off the bat. Which is a shame, because he makes it too easy to roll your eyes at him, and that would be a mistake. This stuff demands serious discussion.

He starts off with a burst of illogic and bad math, to wit:

(A) During the 11 years Bloomberg’s been mayor, unspecified tens of thousands of weapons have been seized by the police;
(B) During those same 11 years, there were 7,383 fewer murders than in the preceding 11 years [though he cites 13,212 and 5,849 as the figures, so the actual difference would be 7,363];
(C) The NYPD has saved 7,383 lives.

Uh huh. Right.

Well, he IS right that crime is way down. A careful statistician might even observe that crime in this city is way WAY down. And this is a good thing.

But to what extent is it a result of the police seizing all those weapons? (And how many weapons did they seize in the 11 years before Bloomberg? He doesn’t say.) In fact, to what extent is the drop in crime the result of policing policies at all? Most research I’ve read seems to support demographic shifts and maturing community attitudes as its primary causes.

Kelly makes this “we saved lives” point in order to justify the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program. He makes other arguments, too. Taken together, his arguments all boil down to “it works, therefore it’s justified.”

No. Wrong.

Just because something works, that doesn’t make it right. Or even legal. Just think of the atrocities the State could commit if mere effectiveness was all the justification it needed. Better yet, don’t think of them. I don’t want to give you nightmares.

But put that aside for now. Is he even right to claim that it’s working, in the first place?


It is silly to deny that good policing can affect crime rates. When the police are effective — when criminals stand a good chance of being caught and punished — then that effectiveness serves as a deterrent. People who otherwise might have committed a crime are more likely to think twice about it.

Then again, we are talking about violent crime, here. How much violent crime is even capable of being deterred? Most assaults and murders are unplanned, spur-of-the-emotions stuff. The odds of being caught and punished aren’t exactly being weighed. Even an effective police force will have an iffy deterrent effect there, at best.

But that’s not what stop-and-frisk is about. And it’s not really about getting weapons off the streets, either.

Stop-and-frisk is about making the risky people take their risky behavior somewhere else.

The NYPD is doing it because they think it will work. That it has worked. That it is working.

And they are wrong.


First things first: It is community values, more than anything else, that determines a neighborhood’s crime level. Policing, funding, government programs — all that stuff comes a distant, distant second. Neighborhoods where crime is sort of expected just get more of it. If crime is thought of as “something that happens,” it’s gonna happen. People will be more likely to see it as an option, and others will be more likely to tolerate it. Whereas communities that have little tolerance for crime tend to get less and less of it. (This is not the “broken windows” theory, though it comes from a similar place.)

Community values do not change overnight. A lot of individuals have to change their minds, see different options, gain a new perspective. Cultural attitudes don’t change overnight, either. In some parts of this city, behavior that is factually criminal is culturally accepted. It just is. Though the larger society has declared certain things so bad as to be deserving of punishment, some micro societies may see those same things as no big deal — even good — or at least more tolerable. And then there’s attitudes of futility, propriety, and all that. That’s all a discussion for another day — the point is there’s a lot of cultural inertia to overcome if you want to affect crime rates.

The quickest way to change community values is for people with different values to move in and assimilate. Perhaps an unpalatable thing to suggest, but it is the fastest way to do it. And policing can help.

Anybody who’s lived in NYC for a while can tell you about neighborhoods that have changed dramatically in this way. There are blocks and parks and neighborhoods that used to be havens for thugs, thieves and cutthroats. Now they’re safe as the suburbs. Because new people with different attitudes towards crime moved their families and businesses there, and changed the nature of the community. And policing made such demographic shifts possible.

But for the existing crime, these were attractive places to live. The new residents would have moved there before, but for the risks of living there. All the police had to do was make the place seem safe enough, and then the gentrifiers could move in and finish the job through cultural assimilation.

The NYPD did just that. They got the threatening elements to either stop being threatening or to go somewhere else, and soon gentrification happened. And those neighborhoods are touted by law enforcement — not without reason — as success stories.

It is these successes that the NYPD is trying to replicate now, with stop-and-frisk.


But to achieve those successes, the NYPD basically had to become an occupying army.

They needed a constant presence, to make it crystal clear to the thugs thieves and cutthroats that they needed to take their business elsewhere. They had to be breathing down the bad guys’ necks. Arresting them whenever possible. At times, residents even banded together to collectively waive their Fourth Amendment rights, so the police could stop anyone, knock on any door, to keep the bad guys out.

These were drastic measures, but they worked. Former open-air drug markets are now parks where children play safely. Blocks once known for burglaries and assaults are now known for shops and cafés. Policing took care of the first obstacle, and the new residents took care of the rest, forming new communities with less tolerance for crime.

And this is what the NYPD is trying to do now, with stop-and-frisk. Once again, they’re acting like an occupying force. They’ve identified the high-crime areas, the blocks where violence has spiked, and they’ve concentrated their troops in those areas. They’re making their presence known. They’re breathing down everyone’s necks. They’re stopping anyone who looks like a troublemaker.

But this time, they don’t really have the gentrifying drive behind them. So instead of opening the door to rapid social change, they’re just… …there. An occupying force with no exit strategy.

Is that effective policing?

Is it working?


To the extent it’s making thugs thieves and cutthroats go elsewhere, perhaps. To the extent it’s making them think twice before walking around with a gun in their pants, maybe.

But remember, community values are the important thing here.

What these communities are seeing is cops abusing their power. Stopping people for no good reason. Kelly objects that citizen complaints in general are down this year, but that’s not helpful. What are the numbers of unjustified stops and frisks? We don’t know. Kelly claims that people are only stopped when the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the person committed a crime — which is of course what the law requires before an officer can stop you — but when the vast majority aren’t arrested and won’t have a chance to challenge their stop in court, it’s hard to test (or accept) such a blanket assertion. And even if he were somehow absolutely correct — if every stop was in fact perfectly justified — that doesn’t change what people think they’re seeing.

And perception is everything. In criminal justice, as in economics and history and war and almost any other human endeavor, what is perceived to be the truth is the truth, for all practical purposes.

And the relevant communities perceive these stops to be unjustified. The perception is that cops are harassing people in their neighborhood for no good reason. Accurate or not, that’s how it’s seen.

More than that, the perception is that it’s racist. That it’s being directed at Black and Hispanic men, specifically.

Kelly objects that the neighborhoods with the crime spikes happen to be populated with mostly Black and Hispanic people. The victims of those crimes are just as Black and Hispanic as their perpetrators. There’s nothing racist about this, it’s just a matter of demographic fact.

Of course, there’s at least one recording of a police officer being instructed to specifically target young minority males for no apparent reason other than that they are young, minority, and male. But even if Kelly was absolutely correct that this is a purely race-neutral policy, whose disproportionate racial effect is both coincidental and unavoidable, that doesn’t change the perception.

And the perception in the relevant communities is that stop-and-frisk is little more than institutionalized racism. Abuse of power. Ongoing and systematic violations of individual rights.

Is that effective policing?

Is that working?


Remember: the criminal justice system only works when the public perceives that it achieves justice.

That’s the only way it can possibly work.

If people think that, on the whole, the guilty are punished, then the system works to deter crime. When people think the guilty get away with it, the system breaks down. More people begin to think they might as well commit a crime. You get more crime.

If people think that, on the whole, only the guilty are punished, then the system is seen to be just. When people begin to think anyone can be punished, the system breaks down. It’s seen to be unjust. A lottery. Fewer people feel bound by its constraints. You get more crime.

If people think that, on the whole, the government plays by the rules, then the system has authority. Rule of law prevails. But when people see the government as playing by its own rules, then rule of law goes out the window. Corruption breeds lawlessness. You get more crime.

So what is the NYPD doing here? In trying to recreate its successes of the past, but without the same necessary conditions for success, it’s done nothing but foster the perception that the system is broken. That they’re targeting minorities without respect to guilt. That they’re hassling people without respect to guilt. That they’re not playing by the rules. That they’re routinely breaking the law.

That is how you make people lose faith in the system.

That is how you get more crime.

Is that effective policing?

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5 Responses

  1. Jeff Walker says:

    I’m not an attorney, but I see this as similar to the issues involved with a surveillance state. The problem being that if the state is watching every move, the can prosecute the people they want to bother and ignore problems from those that they wish to aid. They monitor everyone, so they say that it is fair when really the prosecution can be biased in any way they wish.

    In this case, they have the ability to stop anyone. The simple fact that they choose to operate in certain neighborhoods and not others allows them to selectively prosecute. This is where systematic racism can happen. People aren’t too stupid to figure this out at least intuitively.

    What do you think?

  2. John Neff says:

    Mr. Kelly has assumed that the boundaries of the universe are the same as the boundaries of NYC.

  3. Moe says:

    In the WSJ, Ray Kelly deliberately twists the NYC murder rate history. http://goo.gl/CGGr9g

  4. Jim D says:

    Ray Kelly is truly idiotic if he thinks that the murder rate is down solely because of the Stop and frisk program.

  1. August 20, 2013

    […] whether he’s even correct that this is an effective policing strategy. (I already told you why it isn’t.) Let’s just, for the sake of argument, presume that stop-and-frisk actually worked to keep […]

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