Alternative Fact of the Week: Stop and frisk only works if your goal is to violate the Constitution and make cities less safe

We suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that President Donald Trump clings to the belief that the heavy-handed, discriminatory police practice known as stop and frisk “works and was meant for problems like Chicago,” as he asserted this week at a meeting of police chiefs in Florida. As Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous pointed out when asked about the president’s remarks during a Sun editorial board meeting this week, Mr. Trump still believes a group of black and Hispanic youths known as the Central Park Five were guilty of a notorious 1989 rape despite DNA evidence to the contrary. “Let’s start there with President Trump,” said Mr. Jealous, who knows a thing or two about stop and frisk from his days as head of the NAACP. “His thoughts on criminal justice are extreme and typically defy social science.”

That they do, and they earn him Alternative Fact of the Week honors. Stop and frisk has proved a remarkably ineffective tactic at removing guns and drugs from the streets, and its use has (at best) no correlation whatsoever with crime rates.

Former New York mayor/current Trump toadie Rudolph Giuliani is as forceful in his belief that the use of stop and frisk cause the decline in crime during his tenure as he is wrong. According to statistics from the New York Civil Liberties Union, upward of 90 percent of those stopped turned out to be completely innocent. In fact, testimony in the lawsuit that eventually forced the city to curtail the tactic revealed that over eight years, 4.4 million stop and frisk searches turned up about 6,000 guns, or a hit rate of a little better than one in a thousand. The practice was clearly discriminatory, too; although blacks and Hispanics accounted for more than 80 percent of such encounters, the rate at which guns were found in searches of whites was twice as high as it was for blacks.

What’s more, the crime decline in New York began before Mr. Guiliani took over and continued well past his departure — and as the stop-and-frisk rate plummeted. In 2012, New York police conducted more than 685,000 stop-and-frisk searches, and the city had 419 murders and an overall violent crime rate of 639 per 100,000 people. In 2017, police conducted a mere 10,891 stop-and-frisks. The city counted 290 murders last year and a violent crime rate of 539 per 100,000 people.

In Baltimore, our experience with such aggressive tactics has been similar. The Department of Justice’s investigation into Baltimore’s policing practices found similar success rates for stop-and-frisk style searches here and the same pattern of racial discrimination. Forty-four percent of the more than 300,000 such stops the BPD conducted over a four-year period took place in two heavily African-American police districts that together account for just 11 percent of the city’s population. The DOJ reported that it was common practice for Baltimore police to "pat-down or frisk individuals as a matter of course, without identifying necessary grounds to believe that the person is armed and dangerous. And even where an initial frisk is justified, we found that officers often violate the Constitution by exceeding the frisk's permissible scope."

Given how rarely such tactics turned up illegal guns, it’s a near certainty that the tactics did more to contribute to Baltimore’s epidemic of violent crime than they did to stop it. The DOJ report notes that such practices convinced many residents, particularly minorities, "that there is racism in law enforcement, unnecessary force and verbal abuse, an ‘us versus them' attitude among police officers, a lack of positive interactions with the police, and strong feelings of recrimination, resentment, fear and mistrust among residents."

This week, the judge in charge of enforcing Baltimore’s consent decree with the federal government strongly made the case that tactics like stop and frisk are precisely the opposite of what Baltimore’s police should be doing to reduce a violent crime rate that is substantially worse than Chicago’s. “No police department can solve 17 homicides in a week without the cooperation of the community,” U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said. But if we — or Chicago or any other city — want to achieve and maintain trust between the community and police, we had best not take President Trump’s advice on stop and frisk.

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