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Jewish World Review
August 21, 2013/ 15 Elul, 5773
Frisk constitutionally, but frisk
Commentators are gabbing it up about overkill in New York City's police procedure of stopping people, questioning them and sometimes frisking them for guns or contraband. But if you want to ponder really large numbers, forget the cops, who managed just 4.4 million stops from 2002 to 2012.
Instead, visit New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, which screened 27 million passengers just last year. Guess how many guns were found. One. Just one. Should we stop the screening?
No, we shouldn't. The screening is working. It is scaring terrorists and others from trying to carry guns aboard planes. Drop it and you can bet lots more guns than one would make their way through the JFK airport. The fact that police can and might frisk you in New York is working, too. Only 6 percent of those people that police stop and question are arrested. That must be in part because crime is way, way down from what it was, which means that carrying guns is down, and that is largely due to effective police tactics like this one.
Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin nevertheless cited those low arrest figures in her much-discussed 192-page decision that stopping and sometimes frisking was done despite low evidence that there was any excuse for much of it. That would make such frisking unconstitutional because Fourth Amendment interpretations prohibit such searches minus reasonable suspicion.
She also felt there was illegal, indirect racial profiling, citing among other thing the high numbers of Hispanics and blacks who were stopped. She didn't have the power to ban frisking, but did rule it had to be carefully monitored.
I don't doubt there have been abuses, and I hold the Constitution as a precious thing. Depending on how the monitoring is done, I can imagine it allowing sufficient frisking to get the job done. But I can also imagine cautions going beyond what's necessary for constitutional compliance because of some of the arguments Scheindlin and any number of commentators have made.
Police mostly stop minorities. That's true. But it is also true that a major part of New York's dramatically successful strategy has been to concentrate police where crime is concentrated, and that means most of the cops are in low-income minority neighborhoods. It should therefore come as no surprise that police are mostly dealing with minorities, although they also stop them more than whites in white neighborhoods, according to one analysis.
Do police actually make these stops, ask their questions and sometimes frisk without reasonable cause? The plaintiffs' own top academic expert said police reports indicated only 6 percent of the 4.4 million stops were "apparently unjustified" by constitutional criteria. That comes to a lot of people but also strikes me as an error rate that's hardly surprising in something as necessarily reliant on quick judgments as police work often must be.
Ray Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, wrote a July 22 Wall Street Journal opinion piece noting that police have taken "tens of thousands of weapons off the street" over the past 11 years, helping reduce the murder rate in that period to 5,894. In the previous 11 years, it was more than twice that high: 13,212.
Check other sources, and you will find New York actually started this trend of slowing down crime with smart cop strategies as far back as 1990 and, as of eight years ago, has had the lowest crime rate of any of America's 10 largest cities. One dividend is that it has been lowering the number of citizens it sends to prison in a nation that has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
So go ahead and monitor, but don't figure that frisking people who might not be packing a gun is a problem. New York will almost wholly have solved its crime problem when the frisking produces not tens of thousands of guns, but, like one of its airports, no more than one a year.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
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Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
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