Racial Stereotypes and NYC’s “Stop and Frisk”

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio recently followed through on his campaign promise to reform the city’s “Stop and Frisk” policy. “Stop and Frisk” is an NYPD program in which police stop a person and search him or her for weapons and drugs if they appear suspicious. In practice, people of color are stopped at a much higher rate than white people. Last year, a judge ruled that this policy was unconstitutional and that an independent monitor should oversee the New York Police Department. The previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, had appealed the judge’s ruling, but De Blasio dropped the appeal. Over the next three years, the NYPD will be watched by an independent monitor. Then, the city will create the position of Inspector General to watch the NYPD.

This recent development provides an opportunity to discuss Bloomberg’s defense of “Stop and Frisk.” While many complained that “Stop and Frisk” unfairly discriminated against people of color, Bloomberg argued that this policy actually made New York safer for people of color. He said that the majority of lives saved by “Stop and Frisk” were Black and Hispanic. When challenged that his policies discriminate, Bloomberg responds, “Every American has a right to walk down the street without being targeted by the police because of his or her race or ethnicity. At the same time, every American has a right to walk down the street without getting mugged or killed.” For Bloomberg, “Stop and Frisk” appears to be a kind of necessary evil.

There are many problems associated with “Stop and Frisk,” particularly related to stereotypes. Bloomberg may claim that police officers do not discriminate, but this is likely an optimistic assumption. As James Jones argued, racial stereotypes have effects on judgment, even for people who express low levels of prejudice. In this way, a police officer may think he or she is stopping somebody because of a perception of danger, but this judgment may be influenced by racial stereotypes. Thus, people of color may be stopped more because stereotypes cause police officers to perceive them as more dangerous, not because they actually are more dangerous.

On the other hand, Bloomberg and his supporters might argue that people of color disproportionately commit crimes, thus justifying the biased statistics. This view is also the result of stereotypes of people of color as criminals. The kinds of crime that lower class people of color commit are considered dangerous crimes, where upper class white crime is treated much kinder. Cocaine on Wall Street is as illegal as marijuana in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, but it is not treated as the same kind of problem.

Even if one accepts Bloomberg’s claim that “Stop and Frisk” saves Black and Hispanic lives, the effects of its discrimination are still harmful. As mentioned before, the knowledge of stereotypes can cause discrimination even among people who are not outwardly racist. “Stop and Frisk” can be seen as contributing to these stereotypes themselves, causing more discrimination. “Stop and Frisk” propagates the myth that Black and Hispanic people are more dangerous by justifying the need to search them for weapons and drugs. This stereotype then contributes to discrimination against people of color, which makes it more difficult for them to succeed in the traditional economy and could even push more towards crime.

A final concern with “Stop and Frisk” is related to the self-fulfilling prophecy. Police officers treat young people of color as criminals, due to the stereotypes reinforced by the program. Then, people of color internalize this stereotype and may act more like criminals. The police treatment of people of color may not actually discourage crime but encourage it by teaching young people of color that they are criminals.

Bloomberg’s defense of “Stop and Frisk” thus raises several interesting questions about the nature of race and poverty in the inner city. Are the racial stereotypes that this program reinforces outweighed by the potential safety it provides? Does the program actually provide safety or does it simply focus on what is perceived to be the criminal problem? Does “Stop and Frisk” actually deter criminality in people of color or does it encourage it? Finally, how can a new mayor repair the police’s fractured relationship with people of color? Can policing a city with limited resources actually be accomplished without racial stereotypes?

What Happens Now That De Blasio Has Dropped The Stop-And-Frisk Appeal?