The most important job of a police officer is the prevention of crime. In order to accomplish this, the officer must cast a large shadow over his patrol area by projecting an image of omnipresence. The bad guys are unlikely to pursue their nefarious goals while the beat cop or the marked patrol unit is nearby.
But there are many other ways in which a savvy cop keeps his area safe. One is to keep an eye on people and activities he deems suspicious. Making a mental and paper note of such activity can, and often does, lead to crime-solving later. Many good arrests have resulted from information recorded prior to the criminal acts. When the notorious "Son of Sam" was finally captured after committing several homicides, it was due to the data on a parking ticket issued to the killer's car while he was a few blocks away, stalking his next victim.
In New York City, the police use a form known as "Stop and Frisk" when they encounter someone who, based on their experience, appears to be in need of some scrutiny. The info on those forms is fed into a statistics-based managerial computer system known as CompStat. The data is used to follow up on incidents that occurred around the same time and place in which they were recorded.
Now, most people would view that as an excellent way to help the police bring greater safety and security to their neighborhood. Yet there was a roar of criticism from civil rights groups recently when the NYPD released its data on Stop and Frisk interactions for 2009. It seems that cops made 575,000 pedestrian stops last year, 55 percent involving blacks. Critics quickly pointed out that blacks are only 23 percent of the population, while whites, who constitute 35 percent of the city's residents, were involved in only 10 percent of the stops. So, as is typical with all these race-baiting groups, the implication is that the police are racists who enjoy harassing black people by asking them a few questions during circumstances that aroused the officers' suspicion. This would be laughable if it wasn't so dangerous to the security of potential victims. One need only view the patterns of crime in that city to conclude that the "stop" rates are consistent with the ethnic and racial percentages in the respective groups.
Based on reports filed by victims, blacks committed 66 percent of all violent crime in New York in 2009, including 80 percent of shootings and 71 percent of robberies. Blacks and Hispanics together accounted for 98 percent of reported gun assaults. Moreover, it's important to point out that the vast majority of the victims of violent crime were also members of minority groups.
NYPD analyzes victim reports daily and deploys additional manpower to the places where crime is increasing. When police arrive at one of those high-crime spots, their job is to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior. While doing so, they will probably be making more frequent stops than they would make in areas with low crime rates. Given these facts, the department cannot direct its resources where they are most needed without generating racially disproportionate stop data, even though the data is colorblind.
The following is an example of other colorblind methods used to combat crime. In one mostly black police precinct in Brooklyn, the per capita rate of shootings is 81 times higher than in another, mostly white, precinct in the same borough. As a result, the per capita stop rate in the former precinct is 15 times higher than that in the latter (some may wonder why it isn't even higher). Hence, should we conclude that cops in the former precinct are racists for the way they do their job?
Furthermore, crime rates are not the only activity that involves police strategy. Very often, residents of high-crime neighborhoods request more police presence to handle a specific problem. If residents of an apartment building ask their precinct commander to eliminate the drug-dealing on their street, officers will likely question people hanging out around the building and step up their enforcement of quality-of-life laws, resulting in more stops. Such requests for crackdowns on street sales come far more frequently from minority areas, because that's where most of the street drug-dealing occurs.
This isn't rocket science; it's basic math and common sense. Nevertheless, some critics are urging the city to eliminate these crime-control measures. The attack on stop-and-frisk data is based on the false premise that police activity should reflect census data, not crime. If the critics get their way, it would remove a substantial amount of police protection from the city's minority population, those who need it most.
Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas. E-mail Bob.