The truth about stop-and-frisk is still elusive

An influential conservative media outlet, National Review, raised eyebrows recently for conceding it was wrong about NYC’s stop-and-frisk program, which peaked at nearly 700,000 police stops in 2011 but reportedly declined dramatically since.

The magazine and other commentators on the right foresaw a city bathed in blood if the NYPD’s methods were scaled back. Instead, in 2017, NYC saw the fewest homicides for any year in recent memory.

While those plunging stats and a seeming step back from mass stops seem to be good news, the story of stop-and-frisk is more complicated.

The official story is that cops have gifted us a safe big city while lowering stops by more than 90 percent. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration credits itself with curtailing the stop-and-frisk excesses of its predecessors.

That story, however, doesn’t add up. The number of reported stops began to nose-dive noticeably in 2013 — the year before de Blasio took over. That also seems to undercut another theory, that the decline was the outcome of the case against stop-and-frisk in which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional the city’s overuse of the policy. Neither the ruling nor court-ordered reforms that followed had occurred when the numerical drop began.

The key to understanding what happened is to keep in mind that stop-and-frisk data are reported by cops. A federal monitor recently noted (once again) that the NYPD is undercounting stops. The monitor’s report last month on the NYPD’s continued “underreporting” included quips from cops that documenting stops is “not worth the trouble.” While it’s possible that the convergence of the federal case, protests, legislation and an increase in people filming police encounters created a political climate in which cops could no longer engage in mass stops, numbers can’t be trusted to tell the whole story.

The truth about stop-and-frisk presents more questions than answers. Why did stops go down? Were they ever as high as 684,000? Perhaps the most pressing question for those who were violated by police stops might be, why has nobody been held accountable after all these years? One day, we’ll have answers.

Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.

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