The federal judge’s verdict in Floyd v. City of New York brings a bitter debate about the costs and benefits of aggressive street policing to center stage in New York, but without any real promise that the controversy can be conclusively resolved. The parties talk past each other. Those who support stop-and-frisk policies tell us that changes in street policing have made a major contribution to the huge crime reductions in New York over the past two decades, and they are right. Critics of New York policing tell us that young men of color have been the target of millions of aggressive and frequently hostile police interventions when their only offense was appearing in public, and these critics are right too. The current system in New York City helps keep the city safe but at enormous cost to the security and dignity of youth. Can we lower the costs that aggressive policy produces without taking public safety risks? Even if we could outline the kinds of changes we wish to see, how can we create a consensus to produce such changes instead of the current shouting match?
The first important step toward progress will be for the parties to step away from the litigation mindset. To continue to think of the issues in zero-sum terms would make any major progress in reducing abusive police conduct difficult at best. The kinds of improvements in police training and accountability that Judge Scheindlin hopes to produce cannot flow directly from the adversary process. For a court-appointed monitor to work well in any reform of the training, documentation, and evaluation of street policing will require cooperation much more than deterrence, diplomacy rather than dispute. The consent decree that worked best in the recent history of police reform was in Los Angeles, where a new police chief (William Bratton) who had not been a party to earlier conflicts was appointed as a deliberate instrument of management reform. In Oakland, by contrast, the city delayed the effectiveness of a consent decree for at least a decade, much to the detriment of public safety as well as police reform.
Yet even with the best intentions, reforms in the content of street policing are no easy matter. For starters, the concentration of street stops in high crime neighborhoods makes sense as crime control and must continue. Since about 90 percent of all people arrested in New York for robbery and burglary in 2007 were black and Hispanic males, it would not be easy to reduce an equally high percentage of stops.
But there are two aspects of street policing that can produce real and substantial reductions in this tax on young minority males. The volume of street stops can be reduced from the peak rates of recent years. At some point, fewer stops might impinge on crime prevention, but we don’t know where to draw that line at present. And “testing down” with this costly tactic is probably the best way to find the tipping point. Careful experiments in selected high crime areas can determine whether and to what extent the same levels of policing but with fewer stops produces equivalent community protection.
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But the most important reform to stop-and-frisk tactics will be reducing the hostility and indignity of the process. Most of the young men stopped on the street are not committing crimes. Only badly trained cops need to make street stops into contests of domination. Street policing can be firm but polite and respectful, and the very concentration of such efforts in those neighborhoods most impoverished for municipal respect makes a polite police force even more necessary. One need look no further than the achievements of William Bratton and his successor in Los Angeles to find effective preventive policing with less complaint about humiliation of its subjects. The more police can move away from a hostile demeanor during street stops, the lower the costs of those stops to the communities that are the center of police attention. Good public relations will be a critical element in effective and affordable preventive policing.
Zimring is the William G. Simon Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, which Oxford University Press will release in paperback next month. The views expressed are solely his own.