FILE - In this June 12, 2016 file photo, an armed police officer stands guard outside the Stonewall Inn, in New York after a Florida gunman's attack at a gay nightclub spread fear of more attacks. The officer is heavily armed and equipped, in a manner typical of the NYPD's counterterrorism unit and Emergency Service Unit - the NYPD's equivalent of SWAT officers. But the NYPD plans to distribute 20,000 helmets and 6,000 vests before the end of the year to uniformed patrol officers to protect them better during combat with rampaging shooters (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) (AP)
If you grew up in New York City in the 1970s, the number can be hard to get your head around: 291. If you were a reporter in New York City in the early 1990s, the number can almost make your head explode: 291 murders in 2017, the lowest total since the 1950s.
But the number is perhaps most striking when set not against the numbers of murders in other years, but against this figure: the roughly 10,000 police stops conducted in 2017.
The longstanding rationale for the New York Police Department’s widespread use of what came to be known as stop-and-frisk — encounters between officers and people they suspected of suspicious behavior — had been that it was an essential crime-fighting tool. Such stops got guns off the street, the theory went, and low-level enforcement helped sweep up criminals destined to commit more serious crimes.
The rationale was employed as the numbers of stops skyrocketed during the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty. Such stops, endorsed and aggressively enforced by then Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, rose from roughly 100,000 in 2002 to nearly 700,000 in 2011. The rationale was critiqued, by the New York Civil Liberties Union among others, but Bloomberg and Kelly pushed back, armed with year upon year of falling murder totals and other broad reductions in serious crime.
Ultimately, a federal judge, Shira Scheindlin, found the NYPD’s enforcement of stop-and-frisk racially unfair and unconstitutional. A new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and the judge’s orders for reform, prompted a radical scaling back of stop-and-frisk. Critics predicted a disastrous return to, depending on one’s age and experience, the 1970s or the 1990s.
The disaster never happened. Instead, what many scholars and police officials thought nearly unthinkable — further reductions in crime after two decades of plummeting numbers — did.
Holding murders under 300 was just the headline of 2017 statistics that saw considerable reductions in almost every category of major crime.
“Like many conservatives, I had grave concerns about curtailing the New York City police department’s controversial tactic of stopping and frisking potential suspects for weapons,” Kyle Smith wrote this month for the National Review.
“Restricting the tactic, I thought, would cause an uptick, maybe even a spike, in crime rates,” he added. “I and others argued that crime would rise. Instead, it fell. We were wrong.”
The achievement — curtailing both murders and stops — forced me to revisit my own decisions. I had the fun and privilege of serving as the metro editor of The New York Times for five years, but along with the occasional satisfactions came plenty of regrets. For me, none greater than my wish that I’d done a better job directing coverage of stop-and-frisk. My years as metro editor, 2006 to 2011, corresponded directly with the surge in stop-and-frisk.