Saturday, November 13, 2010

Defending Philly Police and Stop-and-Frisk

Temple's Jerry Ratcliffe offers a defense of stop-and-frisk today, but, well, not really:

"Much has been made of last year's increase in pedestrian stops and their disproportionate impact on minorities. However, 250 police officers were added to the force last year - the largest contingent to leave the police academy in years. Many of these new officers were posted to foot patrols in high-crime neighborhoods, many of which are predominantly African American. It is therefore hardly surprising that a majority of the citizens stopped by police were black.

Our research found that after three months, the areas with foot-patrol officers did see an increase in pedestrian stops, but they also saw a 22 percent reduction in violent crime. These results are not microscopic: They represent dozens fewer victims of homicide, robbery, and aggravated assault."

It seems to me there are two separate issues at play here: Police staffing and police tactics. And what Ratcliffe is offering here isn't really a defense of stop-and-frisk, but a defense of putting lots of officers on foot patrol in high crime areas. The second option I can get behind! It's not dissimilar from Gen. Petraeus' counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq: Putting officers on the ground (as opposed to sealed off in a squad care, talking to nobody except victims and perps at crime scenes) helps them build relationships with the community and makes them more likely to notice when something's askance. Sure it leads to more arrests -- it would, simply by virtue of having more cops around -- but it does so in the context of community.

Stop-and-frisk, on the other hand, can alienate a community by dragooning lots of innocent people: Remember, only 8 percent of stop-and-frisk encounters end in an arrest. And remember: Ratcliffe doesn't link the drop in crime to these tactics, but to improved police staffing in high-crime neighborhoods. We're supposed to bless stop-and-frisk by association, apparently.

In any case, Ratcliffe gives the game away when he makes this statement: "Of course, if the perceived level of risk is to be raised, citizens in high-crime neighborhoods are likely to be increasingly inconvenienced and to experience a ramped-up police presence. This does not necessarily mean their civil rights are being violated; nobody is above being stopped by the police."

Actually, I'll disagree with that. Lots and lots of people are above being stopped by the police -- not because they're uppity, but because they're citizens. Police don't have the right to stop and detain people without probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed; the fact that 92 percent of people walk away from these encounters without any kind of criminal charge suggests, to me at least, that the police are exceeding their rights by a considerable margin.


Andrew said...

I know it's just an analogy, but it's increasingly common. Drawing a parallel between community policing and counter-insurgency is not positive for either how we think about community policing or counter-insurgency. Draw the parallel routinely enough, and stop-and-frisk just doesn't seem so crazy anymore.

Joel said...

Andrew: I hear what you're saying. But let me examine the analogy a little further.

In counterinsurgency doctrine, the population is supposed to be protected from the "bad guys." That's why Petraeus in Iraq had his soldiers move into neighborhoods, do foot patrols and put a real emphasis on protecting communities. Before that, the U.S. was largely making was ON the communities.

Since we tend to be stuck with war metaphors for crime anyway, I say let's go with that idea of counterinsurgency as population protection! Because stop-and-frisk and other methods of policing seem to put the police *at war* with the community. And that's not good for the police or the community.

Andrew said...

That's my point. I don't think we're stuck with war metaphors unless we keep sticking with war metaphors. Policing in our communities shouldn't be about protecting the 'population' from 'the bad guys.' It should be about protecting the rights of individuals and the rule of law.

Joel said...

Andrew: I don't think we're that far apart on this. I might change your emphasis on the police mission a little bit to include "protecting communities" in addition to protecting rights and the rule of law; I think stop-and-frisk emphasizes one to the exclusion of the others, however. It shouldn't be a zero-sum game.

And I'll work on coming up with a better way to talk about this than war metaphors!

Andrew said...

Hey, I don't have a good alternative for us. I think the problem with "protecting communities" as a police mission is that it suggests that people can simply be sorted into community members and those who would prey on them. The reality of policing seems to be that they spend a lot of time managing disputes between individuals who've been pushed beyond their limits. In that sense, I think it's more helpful to think of police as Emergency Social Workers than soldiers.

Anonymous said...

You're missing the point here. Along with improved staffing comes increases in ped stops simply because of the increase in officers on foot patrol. An inverse relationship between ped stops and violent crime does not necessarily prove that stop and frisk reduces crime, but it's perhaps one of the tactics which, in conjunction with the benefits you mention (community contact, heighened perceptions of crime)resulted in the crime reductions. Your support for community policing fails to touch on the survey results from Temple. Less than 20% of people in the highest crime areas in the city (where there is a heightened likelihood to be stopped and frisked) believed that the police stop people on the street without good reason. This alludes to the fact that they are stopping the right people, the criminals. Is there a chance that good people will be stopped? Sure, and this isn't a trivial reality. However, all the evidence (the effectiveness in foot patrol, the crime declines since Ramsey's tactics have been implemented...)point to the fact that the police are affecting violent crime. A call to cease stop and frisk based on a single unsettled lawsuit is rash and inappropriate at this point in time.