01/02/2018 21:25 EST | Updated 01/03/2018 10:16 EST

NYC Crime Hits Historic Low, Defying Dire Predictions About End Of Stop And Frisk

The falling crime rate has led some defenders of the controversial policy to admit they were wrong.

Crime rates in New York City reached their lowest levels in recorded history last year, even as police continued to phase out the controversial stop-and-frisk policy. The decrease across all major felony categories followed nearly three decades of declines ― a trend that some pundits predicted would end once police scaled back the widespread practice of targeting people for warrantless searches.

There were a total of 290 killings across New York in 2017, according to preliminary figures from the New York City Police Department, down from 335 homicides in 2016 and a peak of 2,245 in 1990. Other crimes, including rape, assault, grand larceny and car thefts, also fell from the previous year.

The last time crime rates were this low was in the 1950s, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said in December. They were the “lowest since reliable records have been kept,” according to The New York Times.

The steep declines suggest that defenders of New York’s stop-and-frisk policing were wildly off-base with their apocalyptic predictions. Much of this hand-wringing began in the run-up to the 2013 mayoral election, when many of the Democratic candidates, including the eventual victor, Bill de Blasio, ran as outspoken opponents of the policy.

Keith Bedford/Reuters
Bill de Blasio discusses New York City's stop-and-frisk policy in 2012, when he was the city's public advocate.

NYPD officers had sharply increased their reliance on stop and frisk in the preceding years, making a record 686,000 stops in 2011, with the vast majority involving younger African-American or Hispanic men. Nearly 90 percent of the people subjected to stops that year were completely innocent, while many others were ticketed or arrested for lower-level charges, often including drug possession, according to NYPD data cited by the New York Civil Liberties Union. And although supporters have touted stop and frisk as an effective deterrent of violent crime, a 2013 review of 4.4 million stops showed that police confiscated just 5,940 firearms, a rate that amounted to roughly 0.1 percent of all encounters.

In August 2013, a federal judge ruled NYPD’s broad practice of stop-and-frisk policing unconstitutional, calling it “a demeaning and humiliating experience” for communities of color and a “policy of indirect racial profiling.” The department began to drastically reduce its use of the tactic, and by 2016, it had fallen 98 percent to 12,000 stops. Preliminary figures suggest the number of stops fell again in 2017, though racial disparities are still present. A federal official overseeing police reform efforts in New York also said last year that some officers aren’t properly documenting these encounters.

According to defenders of stop and frisk, this downturn in stops should have been disastrous. In the lead-up to the 2013 ruling, then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lambasted opponents of the tactic, calling the New York Civil Liberties Union “no better than the NRA” for suing the city over the policy.

After the ruling, editorials from the New York Daily News and New York Post regularly warned that crime would rise as police backed away from stop and frisk. The outlets published a number of articles that seized on cherry-picked data to fit this narrative, even as overall violent crime continued to decline each year. In an August 2016 column, the editorial board of the New York Daily News finally said it had been wrong about the consequences of reducing these stops. A month later, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed reinstating stop and frisk as a solution to violence in black communities, inaccurately claiming it had “brought the crime rate way down” in New York.

With the nation’s most populous city now experiencing historically low crime rates, even some conservative critics are making an about-face. Kyle Smith, a columnist at the National Review, wrote a piece this week admitting “We Were Wrong about Stop-and-Frisk.”

Although Smith had predicted that ending the practice would “cause an uptick, maybe even a spike, in crime rates,” he said de Blasio “was correct in saying the city could withstand a sharp decrease in “stop-and-frisk” and “was right to draw attention to the social cost of the practice.”

In an email to HuffPost, Smith said he wasn’t a criminologist, but suggested New York’s experience should lead people of all political stripes to ask questions about policing tactics that incur a relatively high social cost for an uncertain benefit.

“On the other hand, why has crime come down so much further in New York City than, say, New Orleans or Baltimore or St. Louis? That would seem to draw attention to the quality of policing,” he said. “Because we can’t study crime under lab-controlled conditions, we may never figure all of this out.”

With the nation’s most populous city now experiencing historically low crime rates, even some conservative critics are making an about-face. Kyle Smith, a columnist at the National Review, wrote a piece this week admitting “We Were Wrong about Stop-and-Frisk.”

Smith’s article gratified vocal opponents of stop and frisk. “If conservatives could just acknowledge that some of their racist and s**tty arguments were racist and s**tty, we might be on the road back to a broadly agreed-upon reality upon which we can base our political and legal debates,” wrote Elie Mystal, executive editor of the Above the Law blog.

But other conservative pundits continue to claim that New York’s lower crime rates are not evidence of the ineffectiveness of stop and frisk. In a separate column for National Review, Heather Mac Donald argued that “proactive-policing enabled gentrification” had led white “urban hipsters” to replace black “drug dealers and pimps” in many New York neighborhoods, fueling the city’s drop in crime. Mac Donald has been a chief proponent of the so-called “Ferguson effect,” a hotly contested theory holding that recent increases in crime are due to increased scrutiny of law enforcement following the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

In her column, Mac Donald cited a recent National Academy of Sciences study on proactive policing methods as proof that tactics like stop and frisk have short-term crime reduction effects. They should therefore be replicated in other cities, she wrote, regardless of concerns about racial bias or their potential to fracture relationships between police and the community.

While the National Academy of Sciences study does show that stop and frisk can be effective, New York’s program was “indefensible” as it existed at its height, David Weisburd, chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Proactive Policing and a professor of criminology at George Mason University, told HuffPost. NYPD’s indiscriminate use of the tactic provided relatively few benefits in exchange for a high potential for negative effects in the community, he said.

“There’s a place for stop, question and frisk in policing, but it’s not a 700,000-stops-in-a-city place, carried out by untrained police officers, newly out of the academy,” Weisburd said. “It shouldn’t be used as a general strategy. You don’t apply an overwhelming radiation treatment to somebody that has a cold.”

Although the NYPD has severely reduced its use of stop and frisk, it hasn’t abandoned the policy entirely. Weisburd said it might still make sense to apply it in a limited fashion in certain “hot spots” as a specific response to elevated levels of gun violence, in which a small percentage of offenders are often responsible for a high proportion of the crime. Such nuanced support for these tactics often gets lost in the current political climate, he said.

But more generally, Weisburd cautioned against focusing on a specific data point to make broader arguments in favor or against a policy.

“Police aren’t the only thing affecting crime. Economic situations, social factors, shifting norms in the community, those also might affect crime,” he said. “The world is complicated.”