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The NYPD--and its statistics--on trial

“There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain was fond of saying: “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” Selectively presented statistics can be used as much

“There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain was fond of saying: “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” Selectively presented statistics can be used as much to distort or obscure as they can to illuminate and reveal truths. Much like a carefully cropped photo, a select set of numbers presented in isolation can be used to persuade people of their presenter’s viewpoint, even if in context those stats actually tell a very different story.

So it is with the New York City Police Department’s most recent press release on the 2012 data concerning the department’s controversial stop-and-frisk program. “Blacks were 55% of the stop subjects and were 66% of the violent crime suspects in 2012,” the release said. Gee, it sure sounds like all those critics of the NYPD who say stop-and-frisk is racially discriminatory are wrong, doesn’t it? The police are stopping a smaller percentage of African-Americans than are committing crimes, so they must be stopping them based on colorblind, legitimate suspicion, right?

Wrong. Here’s what the NYPD conveniently left out of that picture: On the forms that police officers fill out reporting why they stopped people, “fits description” was checked off in only 12% of cases (that number comes from January 2010 through June 2012 data, so it is not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison; however, it is also consistent with yearly data from prior years and 2012 data is not yet available on this). Thus “66% of violent crime suspects” is a red herring here since the vast majority of people are not being stopped because they resemble suspects in violent crimes. Moreover, suspect race is actually unknown in almost 40% of all crime complaints filed with the NYPD each year.

Expert analysis of the stop-and-frisk statistics, taken all together, tells a different story. Looking at all the data from January 2010 through June 2012, after controlling for crime, local social conditions and the concentration of police officers in an area, race is a primary explanatory factor for stops at both the individual and neighborhood level. This was also true for expert analysis of the data from 2004 through 2009.

Black and Latino New Yorkers accounted for 87% of 2012 stops (and the same percentage in 2011), but they are only 53% of the population--those numbers make it look like they are singled out because in fact they are singled out.

The NYPD also proudly touts the number of guns confiscated through its stop-and-frisk program, which the press release says was 780 in 2012. But 780 gun confiscations out of 533,042 stops actually only amounts to a recovery rate of 0.15%.  That’s one gun for every 683 people stopped.

This is lower than the rate of gun seizures at random checkpoints. It suggests both that unlawfully stopping hundreds of thousands of people  is an ineffective way to try to get guns off the street, and that seizing weapons is not really the reason people are being stopped.

Every first-year graduate student learns that correlation does not prove causality, but the NYPD routinely claims that the city’s falling crime rates are caused in part by their stop-and-frisk practices. There is not a single published study providing evidence for this claim. The truth is that no one knows what has caused the city’s drop in crime, but given the fact that only 6% of stops result in arrest and the vast majority of these are for so-called quality of life violations, it seems improbable, to say the least , that crime rates are going down because of stop and frisk.

But this unsubstantiated claim–that stop-and-frisk reduces crime–is essential for the NYPD. Without it, stop-and-frisk just looks like one big waste of public resources spent harassing black and brown citizens. The claim is meant to imply that we should be okay with the constitutional violation of thousands of people’s rights every day because it’s a price we have to pay for our safety.

That and other “lies, damned lies and statistics” the NYPD would like us to believe are meant to distract us from the outrageous reality that every year the police treat hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers as suspects rather than citizens.

But on March 18, when the Center for Constitutional Rights case, Floyd v. City of New York, goes to trial, it will be the NYPD that has to account for its behavior. A judge will hear all the evidence and see all the statistics, not just a cherry-picked few, and decide whether the stop-and-frisk program violates the rights of New Yorkers.

 Vincent Warren is Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. CCR is lead counsel in Floyd v. City of New York.

Update: Warren was a guest on Saturday's edition of Melissa Harris-Perry, discussing this topic. See video above and below.