There’s been a new ruling curtailing New York’s controversial police practice of stop-and-frisk:

In a blistering decision issued on Monday, the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, found that on hundreds of thousands of occasions since 2004, the police have systematically stopped innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. She further found that the Police Department had “adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling” that targeted young minority men for stops.

Judge Scheindlin has “called for a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms” of the practice.

Stop and Frisk

If there really were a huge number of instances in which the NYPD stopped people merely because they were black or Hispanic and in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than actually being prompted by the proper standard of “reasonable suspicion,” it seems clear that the practice would need stricter guidelines. But were there?

Here’s an example of the sort of statistical wrangling on which the charges of racial bias are based:

…[N]umbers [released by the mayor’s office] showed that 87% of the people stopped under stop-and-frisk in 2012 were black or Latino, and that 9% were white. That same year, more than 90% of those identified as murder suspects were blacks or Latino; just 7% were white.

Critics of stop-and-frisk charge that such numbers are irrelevant. They charge that cops indiscriminately go after young black and Hispanic men on bogus grounds, and that nearly nine out of ten people who are stopped are innocent.

That last fact—that most people stopped are innocent—was also cited by the judge in her ruling.

But law by statistics is a dangerous game.

Of course most people stopped are innocent, but this does not tell us why they were stopped and whether those reasons constituted “reasonable suspicion” or not, which are the important issues. It merely tells us that stop-and-frisk is a highly imperfect instrument for locating criminals.

Nor does it tell us what the relationship of New York’s stop-and-frisk has been to the decline in crime experienced by that city. Is it causative, or is the drop merely another instance of a more general drop in crime during the same period that has occurred even in jurisdictions that don’t practice the sort of tactics employed by the NYPD?

It will be “interesting” to see what happens to the crime rate in the city if New York’s stop-and-frisk is dramatically cut back as a result of this ruling. Because make no mistake about it—there is a good chance of some very serious negative consequences if stop-and-frisk is watered down:

Even compared with other cities where crime has also declined, New York has experienced dramatic changes. Since 2002, major crimes across the country have declined fourteen per cent; in New York, they have declined thirty-four per cent. The contrast is even more striking between New York and other big cities. If New York had Detroit’s murder rate last year, there would have been forty-five hundred murders in the city–more than ten times the actual number.

One thing is pretty certain: just as this ruling affects mostly black and Hispanic male residents of New York, who are mostly the ones being stopped and frisked, so the crime rate mostly affects the black and Hispanic population of New York, because those groups are enormously over-represented not only as perpetrators but as victims of crime.

To get more details about the legal reasoning behind the Judge Scheindlin’s decision, read the 165-page text. But this article on Scheindlin and New York’s stop-and-frisk, which appeared in The New Yorker last May, contains some troubling information.

The following is only a small sample:

“What I really like to do is write opinions,” the Judge [Scheindlin] said. “There you get to do what you think is right, what you believe in. You’re pushing the margins of the envelope, being willing to be creative.”…

As one of her former law clerks put it, “What you have to remember about the Judge is that she thinks cops lie.”

According to a study prepared by the Mayor’s office, Scheindlin suppresses evidence on the basis of illegal police searches far more than any of her colleagues–twice as often as the second-place judge. This may mean that Scheindlin is uniquely courageous–or that she is uniquely biased against cops…

Whether Scheindlin herself is biased or neutral on this subject, the proper legal question is whether the NYPD actually is just stopping and frisking willy nilly (or based merely on race and nothing else) in high-crime areas without “reasonable suspicion.” If so, the practice needs to be stopped and/or revamped. But let’s hope that doesn’t lead to New York coming more and more to resemble Detroit.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]