Stop-and-Frisk and the Crime Wave That Wasn’t

January 2, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s hard to admit you were wrong even when you make a flat-out prediction of something that doesn’t happen. In 2010, twenty-three economists signed a letter predicting disastrous inflation because of Fed monetary policy. Four years and no inflation later, all but one stuck to their guns and refused to acknowledge that they were wrong. (For more details, see my post “Failed Prophecy and Sunk Costs.”)

And now Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. In 2013, when the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy was being challenged in court and in the City Council, she clearly saw the future. In City Journal, the house organ of the Manhattan Institute, she wrote an article called “Stop the Killing, Keep ‘Stop-and-Frisk.’” Stop-and frisk was stopping murder, she said, and ending the policy would reverse that positive trend.

Unless the politicians and editorialists pressing so hard for a radical reduction of stops can offer a crime-fighting strategy to rival the NYPD’s record, they are implicitly calling for a rise in violence.

Her interview on the National Review podcast “Need to Know” was summed up as follows by Jack Dunphy at Ricochet, a right-leaning website.

I’ve just now finished listening to the latest “Need to Know” podcast, in which Jay and Mona interviewed my friend Heather Mac Donald. . . . End stop-and-frisk, she says, and prepare to see the murder rate in New York climb once again.

MacDonald didn’t put it quite that simply, but the implication was clear. On that podcast, she also predicted that the end of “proactive policing” (mostly stop-and-frisk) would “destroy the city’s economic vitality.”

It didn’t happen – none of it. The court challenge to stop-and-frisk was upheld in 2013. Stops decreased dramatically. Crime did not increase. At all. Not that year and not in the years that followed. As this graph from Mother Jones shows, the rapid increase and then decrease in stops had virtually no effect on crime rates, which began to decrease in the early 1990s and continued their downward trend.

The graph goes up through 2015. In the next two years, the lines continued their slight downward trend. In the year just ended, New York had its lowest number of murders since the 1950s. Rates of other crimes have also remained low.

Three years of low crime following the decrease in stop-and-frisk was finally enough for some conservatives to admit that they were wrong. At National Review, Kyle Smith wrote a column with the headline “We Were Wrong About Stop-and-Frisk.”

Not Heather MacDonald. The title of her piece, also in National Review, warns us. “Don’t Take the Wrong Lessons from NYC’s Murder Drop.” Those wrong lessons are caricatures of those who disagree with her (“proactive policing like pedestrian stops is unnecessary, these cop critics say”). As for the continued low level of violence and murder, she attributes these crime trends to gentrification. She has a point. Demographic changes play a part, and the gentrification MacDonald describes is linked no doubt to that economic vitality that she said would die along with the reduction in stop-and-frisk. But demographic change happens gradually. The changes in stop-and-frisk were sudden. Their effects should have had immediate and noticeable effects. They didn’t.

UPDATE, Jan. 3: On Twitter, Mark Kleiman says that just although the big increase in stop-and-frisk had no effect during a period of relatively low crime rates, the policy might be effective when crime rates are high. I do not know of any relevant research on this, and Kleiman doesn't refer to any. But the targets of the policy, even during low-crime years, were high-crime neighborhoods and people who the police suspected of being high-crime people.

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