If “tough on crime” approaches to criminal justice need to be effective to be justified, then stop-and-frisk policies could be on the cutting board.
After an investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s stop-and-frisk approach to prevent crime, WBEZ found that it had little effect.
“Unquestioned at the hearing was an assumption: Police stops make the community safer. But police department data reveal a complicated picture. The records … show negative trends as officers reported more stops: Gun seizures dropped, detectives solved fewer murders, and a decade-long decline in gun violence ended,” Chip Mitchell wrote.
The concern over stop-and-frisk goes beyond the utilitarian. It’s bad enough that the program wasn’t preventing or deterring crime, but it’s also of questionable legality. Without reasonable suspicion for stopping someone, the police department was in danger of violating the Fourth Amendment rights of those stopped.
In Chicago, stop-and-frisk crowded out other police goals. Stops would generate “contact cards,” data with basic information on the person stopped. Not every stop would have a contact card, so experts aren’t sure how many people were stopped, but more cards collected were correlated with a drop in gun confiscation.
“Hitting the streets to collect cards seemed to distract from locating illegal firearm stashes and executing search warrants to seize those weapons,” Mitchell wrote.
The goal of stop-and-frisk was to deter criminals from carrying guns, drugs, and other contraband, thus decreasing crime and making streets safer. Instead, data collection became an end in itself and didn’t drive down crime.
Similar problems haunted New York City, whose stop-and-frisk program was the model for Chicago. As far back as 2010, critics accused the police department of “instituting a quota system for arrests and for stop-and-frisk searches” and “discouraging crime victims from reporting crimes” to “make the city’s crime statistics look better.” As in Chicago, New York was haunted by ineffectiveness and constitutional concerns over the program.
Chicago police officers became overburdened. When they became data junkies, they “shut down,” not being allowed to use their training to prevent crime.
Data collection can further smart policing by having an accurate perception of how crime affects neighborhoods, then redirect police resources to those problem areas to improve safety and prevent crime. The experience of stop-and-frisk in New York and, especially, Chicago, shows the pitfalls of prioritizing any component of policing over public safety.