The Center for Constitutional Rights has released data, obtained under court order, showing that police in New York City stop and frisk blacks and Latinos far more often than whites. This non-story nonetheless made the front page of The New York Times. I say “non-story” because, as the Times notes, (1) police stops, though inconvenient if not degrading, are constitutionally permissible under Terry v. Ohio, and (2) the data do not prove that police are targeting minorities in their stops.
To its credit, the Times does give the NYPD’s view of the data and solicits a comment from courageous police defender Heather Mac Donald. As Mac Donald observes, police officers only stop blacks and Latinos more often because the NYPD has decided, not unreasonably, to put more officers in high-crime neighborhoods where blacks and Latinos are disproportionately concentrated. Indeed, the data do not, as one CCR lawyer put it, “suggest that racial disparities in who gets stopped has [sic] more to down with officer bias and discretion than with crime rates.” On the contrary, CCR found that whites when stopped are just as likely to be arrested as blacks or Latinos. In other words, as Tim Carney and others point out, police officers are no less suspicious of whites than blacks or Latinos.
Oddly, however, the Times story begins, “Blacks and Latinos were nine times as likely as whites to be stopped by the police in the New York City in 2009, but, once stopped, were no more likely to be arrested.” The conjunction “but” here is ambiguous. It could suggest (a) that police more often stop and frisk blacks and Latinos but that arrest rate similarities show that the police are not targeting them disproportionately. Or it could suggest (b) that police more often stop and frisk blacks and Latinos but without justification, as shown by similar arrest rates. Since the Times regards CCR’s findings as newsworthy, the casual reader can be forgiven for thinking that the Times is erroneously implying (b). But the correct conclusion to draw is (a) — that similar arrest rates undermine the hypothesis that the NYPD is biased against minorities. Nowhere, however, does this elementary point appear in the Times article.
Indeed, the truly biased policy would be the very one that CCR seems to favor – namely, to stop and frisk each ethnic group at the same rate. Suppose white neighborhoods suffer only 5 crimes per 1000 individuals, while black neighborhoods suffer 10. If the NYPD, in the hope of equalizing stop and frisk rates, puts the same number of officers in each 1000-person neighborhood, then whites get to enjoy twice the police resources per crime than blacks. Essentially, CCR thinks that NYPD should protect whites only. The real story here was not “City Minorities More Likely To Be Frisked” but “Prominent Non-Profit Legal Foundation Advocates For-Whites’-Benefit Only Policing.” The reporter missed a scoop that was right in front of his nose.