New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, in which officers try to reduce crime by searching anyone on the street they deem suspicious, has roiled civil liberties advocates for years, and for good reason: The practice disproportionately targets black and Latino men and results in few gun seizures. In 2011, cops made 685,000 stops and recovered just 770 illegal guns. That’s about 0.1% of the stops.
Now add this to the chorus of criticism: A huge gap exists between where cops find illegal weapons and where they concentrate their searches. WNYC, New York City’s public radio station, used the police department’s 2011 data to plot stop-and-frisk hotspots—areas where cops expend the most energy searching—against actual gun recoveries. Hotspots are magenta, and green dots represent places where officers found at least one gun. As you can see, there’s very little overlap:
At first glimpse, this seems to be strong evidence against the efficacy of stop-and-frisk—or at least a damning critique of how the police department conducts its searches. If the policy is so good at reducing crime, shouldn’t officers find more weapons in the places where they allocate the most resources? Instead, they’re working their asses off and seeing very little payoff. In the business world, we call that pivot time.
Except it’s not quite so clearcut. According to the police, the data show that the searches are working exactly as they should. WNYC reports:
[C]ommanding officers within the NYPD tell WNYC the police concentrate their stop-and-frisk activity where violent crimes have been reported. Violent crimes, not past gun recoveries, determine where police officers are sent, they say.
Further, these officers point out, the WNYC map is evidence that stop-and-frisk tactics are working. They say people don’t carry guns in the areas they expect to get stopped by police—that’s deterrence.
That might be the case, but deterrence doesn’t matter one jot if stop-and-frisk is ruled unconstitutional. In May, a federal judge condemned many of the stops for failing to meet constitutional standards for searches, based on the police department’s own records. The following month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city would start scaling back its stop-and-frisk efforts.
[Click here for a full-screen view of the map]