Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dangerous Numbers

If you want to understand the difficult and complex relationship between Black New Yorkers and the New York Police Department, one set of numbers stands out in Michael Powell's piece in today's Times, "Police Polish Image, but Concerns Persist."

As Powell reports, in the years of the Giuliani administration that saw transforming reductions in New York crime rates, the NYPD was frisking 80,000 young men a year. That, and police shootings, and Giuliani's indifference to Black New Yorkers' concerns, stirred angry protests.

But in 2008, under the more conciliatory and image-conscious Bloomberg mayoralty, the NYPD frisked more than 500,000 New Yorkers. Over eighty percent of them were young Hispanic or Black men. But of half a million people frisked, Powell reports, only four percent were arrested.

This is a terribly low yield for an intrusive policy.

Police Commissioner Kelly, Powell reports, points out that the race and ethnicity of the people stopped closely reflect the portion of the city's population that commits and suffers from crime.

Nevertheless, the NYPD won't be able to police the city effectively if it alienates the very people it is supposed to serve.

I am not one to disparage the role of the police in reducing crime in New York City, which is one of the most welcome changes in Gotham's recent history. But with crime low, the police department could afford to be more careful and restrained in stopping and frisking young Black and Hispanic men.

The current policy runs the real risk of deeply alienating young Black and Hispanic men from the NYPD. And that's not healthy for anyone.