Frisk Management

How the NYPD's blackly grim stop-and-frisk numbers got whitewashed

A total of 2,756 cops filed 54 percent, or approximately 274,000, of all stop-and-frisk reports in 2006. Of that group, 15 percent, or about 413 officers, stopped no whites.

Residents of Brownsville's 73rd Precinct and Harlem's 28th Precinct had a 30 to 36 percent chance of being stopped and questioned by police in 2006. Citywide, the average was about 6 percent.

Even using the study's statistical churning of "similarly situated" groups of people, if blacks were frisked at the same rate as nonblacks there would have been 5,350 fewer black people—almost 15 a day—frisked last year.

If black suspects were subjected to the use of force by the police at the same rate as nonblacks, they would have experienced 2,000 fewer use-of-force incidents in 2006. Oddly, the report speculates that "if black suspects are likelier to flee or resist, the observed difference in rates of use of force may not be due to officer bias."

Given the generally positive news coverage that greeted the report, perhaps these negative findings got lost in the translation. The report relies on a methodology that leaves some professors who deal in this type of research scratching their heads.

RAND ruled out comparing population-to-stop ratios because the census "doesn't indicate who is out there on the street," Ridgeway tells the Voice. Population numbers, he says, also fail to take into account participation rates in crime.

Many of the results in the RAND study are difficult to compare with other reports, but the findings in general are in contrast to a December 1999 report by then–Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. That study, which analyzed 15 months' worth of stop-and-frisk reports, about 175,000 in total, found that based on respective arrest percentages, there was a huge racial difference in stops.

Eight years later, the RAND report—which doesn't include the supporting raw data—says that's no longer the case, that the racial differences in the figures are practically negligible.

Another benchmark that RAND compared to the stop ratio was suspect- description figures. That test was the basis for Ridgeway's statement that black pedestrians were actually being "understopped," and it's also the NYPD's favorite fallback line. But the stop-to-suspect description analysis is based only on descriptions for violent-crime suspects. Suspect descriptions for other crimes were not available to him, Ridgeway says.

Having ruled out the census comparison, RAND determined that, based on the arrest and suspect-description benchmarks, black pedestrians were not overstopped.

The majority of the RAND analysis relies on an obtuse formula of "similarly situated" cases to assess if there were differences in the post-stop treatment—frisking, searches, summons, arrests, and use of force—for blacks, whites, and Latinos. Ridgeway describes his method in the report as trying to compare "pedestrians who were stopped in similar situations, in the same places, at the same times, and for the same reasons."

Columbia Law School professor Jeffrey Fagan, who was a lead researcher on Spitzer's stop-and-frisk report, says that in a city like New York, where many of the neighborhoods are racially segregated, figuring out numbers of "similarly situated" groups can be difficult. "You have to wonder what is being lost," he says of the numbers crunched in the RAND report.

In one of RAND's comparisons, for example, the pool of blacks similarly situated to white suspects was only 25,679, or 9.6 percent, out of the approximate 267,000 who were stopped by police last year. In another, RAND used only 8,260, or about 15 percent, of the approximately 55,000 stops involving whites they found similarly situated to black-pedestrian stops.

"If you lose too many cases, you have what is called a 'selection bias' in your sample," Fagan says—and that can distort the results.

Officials at the Center for Constitutional Rights point out what they believe is a major shortcoming in the RAND analysis: "It fails to acknowledge and factor in that the majority of stops are based on subjective criteria and are not tied to alleged criminality."

Noel Leader, the co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and a recently retired sergeant who spent 20 years on the NYPD, says cops call that "going fishing."

"If you stop 50 people," he says, "somebody's going to have something—a bag of weed, a warrant, a gun, something you can arrest them for. But my training taught me we're hunters, not fishers. Hunters go after specific targets: people you think are doing crimes. Fishermen throw a net out there and whatever he catches, he catches."

"Going fishing" is something that wouldn't reveal itself in the data, says Ridgeway.

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