New York’s walking dead
They walk among us, even now. We don’t know who they are, precisely, but we know what many are like, and we can hazard guesses. The elderly woman hobbling home from church. The young executive taking a shortcut to work. The jogger glancing at his watch at sunset. The parking lot attendant scrambling to find a sedan. The deli owner depositing cash receipts. The young mother sitting on her stoop … the toddler she’s minding.
Question: Who are they?
Hint: Most of them are black and Hispanic.
Answer: They’re the people who will die because United States District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin has ruled that New York City’s wildly successful, but perennially controversial, stop-and-frisk program is racially discriminatory. Judge Scheindlin has appointed a federal monitor to oversee the program — which surely means that stop-and-frisk will not only be scaled back but will also be radically reconfigured to ignore the life and death reality of crime in the city and cater instead to the politically correct sensibilities of the liberal elite.
The debate that has surrounded the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, going back to the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, is a stark microcosm of the larger debate over crime and punishment in the United States. During the four-year administration of David Dinkins, who preceded Giuliani, homicides in the city averaged 2,085 per year. Giuliani was elected in 1993 and immediately beefed up the police’s elite Street Crimes Unit, granting cops greater latitude to crack down on street crime — including utilizing stop-and-frisk. The results were immediate and dramatic. During Giuliani’s first year in office, 1994, murders dropped to 1,561 — and kept dropping. To 1,177 in 1995. To 984 in 1996. To 767 in 1997. To a low of 629 in 1998. Even with a slight uptick in 1999 and 2000 — a rise that coincided, predictably, with the reining in of cops after the tragic Amadou Diallo killing — the number of homicides in the city still hovered below 700. For 2001, Giuliani’s last year in office, the number stood at 649.
Michael Bloomberg, who followed Giuliani as mayor, continued stop-and-frisk, and the homicide numbers remained at or near historical lows: 587 in 2002; 597 in 2003; 570 in 2004; 539 in 2005; 596 in 2006; 496 in 2007; 523 in 2008; 471 in 2009; 536 in 2010; 515 in 2011; 419 in 2012. For the first six months of 2013, there were 156 homicides in the entire city of New York.
Nor, as is often suggested, has the drastic reduction come at the cost of escalating police violence. During Dinkins’s last year as mayor, 41 civilians were killed by the police. The average for his four years was 28 civilians deaths. Under Giuliani, that number was halved — and, again, the number has continued to drop under Bloomberg. In 2010 (the last year for which records are readily available) city cops shot and killed eight civilians — the lowest number since the department began keeping records in 1971. Indeed, evidence suggests that the police are currently firing fewer bullets at fewer people in fewer incidents than at any time for which data exist.
Police violence is down. Criminal violence is down. New York is the safest large city in the United States. But stop-and-frisk has continued, unabated. There have been roughly five million stops-and-frisks (loosely defined) by New York City police over the past decade, and a vast majority of them have involved black and Hispanic men. The number is startling. So it’s easy to understand how the policy has stirred an ongoing, and often rabid, debate. If we set aside the rabid form of that debate — that is, if we exclude the finger-wagging and name-calling of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and their media enablers — people of good conscience must wrestle with three unfortunate, but indisputable, truths:
1) Law enforcement officers do in fact suspect and contact a grotesquely disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men.
2) Law enforcement officers suspect and contact a grotesquely disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men because black and Hispanic men commit a grotesquely disproportionate number of street crimes.
3) If we re-write the criminal code to decriminalize the behavior that causes law enforcement officers to suspect and contact black and Hispanic men, a grotesquely disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics—who are the primary victims of street crimes—will suffer and die as a consequence.
That third point is critical, but it requires a slight clarification, since the claim is often advanced that the criminals most often caught by stop-and-frisk tactics are non-violent offenders — especially illegal drug suppliers and users. If America ended its so-called “war on drugs,” the argument goes, fewer black and Hispanic men would run afoul of the law. This is likely true. But would black and Hispanic communities be better or worse off for it? If it turns out that non-violent offenders are offenders who’ve made a moral decision never to resort to violence in the course of their criminal activities — that they are, in effect, pushers and crackheads and potheads with hearts of gold — then black and Hispanic communities needn’t fear more of them roaming the streets; they’re a nuisance but not a mortal concern. Implicitly, this seems to be Judge Scheindlin’s position. It is the only moral justification for her ruling. If, on the other hand, it turns out that non-violent offenders are just offenders who haven’t yet resorted to violence, or who haven’t been caught resorting to violence — if, in short, she’s wrong and I’m right — then black and Hispanic communities will suffer with more of them roaming the streets. More law-abiding blacks and Hispanics will die as a consequence. If that consequence materializes, it can and should be laid at the doorstep of Judge Scheindlin.
To speak of crime and punishment in such stark terms, such black and white terms — or, if you prefer, such black and brown terms — is, of course, to invite the charge of racism. (Feel free, by the way, if you’re so inclined. I’m serious. Go ahead. Get it off your chest. I’ll wait … There, have you vented? Has your indignation achieved a satisfying level of self-righteousness? Can we move on now?) Once the charge of racism has come and gone, the next objection inevitably begins, “Yeah, but …” That is, “Yeah, but there are historical reasons why the crime statistics are what they are. America’s sordid racial history can’t be overlooked as we analyze the conditions of blacks and Hispanics today.”
Maybe not. But it changes nothing. The fact that dark-skinned people have been treated shabbily in the past matters not one iota in designing effective police procedures in the present. Indeed, even if we were to accept the hackneyed, dog-whistle rhetoric of the professional grievance industry, even if we were to stipulate that the shabby treatment of dark-skinned people is insidious and ongoing, law enforcement would still face the same challenges in keeping the public, including and especially black and Hispanic communities, safe.
The debate over stop-and-frisk, in the end, boils down to costs versus benefits. The major cost of the stop-and-frisk program is that it visits upon black and Hispanic males a series of undeniable inconveniences and indignities — a cost borne by them wholly out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. Here again, however, we must qualify that observation by an acknowledgment of reality. While black and Hispanic males have surely been stopped and frisked at rates that dwarf those for any other demographic, as New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly points out, the race of those stopped in each of the city’s 76 police precincts “highly correlates to descriptions provided by victims or witnesses to crimes.” The reason black and Hispanic men get stopped and frisked so often, in other words, is because black and Hispanic men commit so many street crimes. Blame for the disproportional impact, thus, lies not with police policy but with black and Hispanic criminals — who cause reasonable suspicion to fall on people whom they superficially resemble. This wouldn’t be the case if 911 operators throughout the city were being deluged by reports of stock fraud. The suspect demographic, in that case, would be very different, and middle-aged white guys in expensive suits would be getting pulled over and patted down. But that’s not why New Yorkers dial 911.
Which returns us, at last, to the major benefit of stop-and-frisk: Conservative estimates put the number of lives saved by the policy since the Giuliani administration at well over 10,000. That’s 10,000 living, breathing human beings, as well as their children, who will wake up tomorrow and think nothing of the alternative history in which their lives, absent stop-and-frisk, would have been annihilated.
They, too, are the walking dead.
So what’s to be done about Judge Scheindlin’s ruling? Mayor Bloomberg has already vowed to appeal it — which he should. It’s the moral thing to do. But it’s also worth noting that New Yorkers themselves, taken as a whole, want to end stop-and-frisk. According to an August 2012 Quinnipiac Poll of NYC voters, the margin is 50-45 against the practice. Among black voters, the split is 69-25 — which is wide enough to overcome both white voters, who favor the policy by 57-37, and Hispanic voters, who favor it 53-45. Judge Scheindlin, therefore, is siding with a narrow majority of New Yorkers.
H.L. Mencken once famously said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are about to get it good and hard — albeit by judicial fiat, rather than though normal democratic processes. Those of us who are poised to witness the bloodbath from the sanctuary of safe neighborhoods and doorman-buildings can only hope they come to their senses sooner rather than later … and that the next mayor, whoever he or she is, heeds their eventual cries for help.
Mark Goldblatt is a professor at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. His latest (apolitical) books are The Unrequited, a literary mystery, and Twerp, a novel for children.