John DeCarlo Asks: What Do You Think is in a Number?

My friend John DeCarlo, recently retired from a very distinguished career as a municipal police chief in Connecticut, has taken his PhD and his talents to the University of New Haven. In a Facebook post he asked his friends to offer their thoughts on an article in today’s NY Times about the number of stop-and-frisk field interrogations conducted by the NYPD.  (

The paper reported that the 203,500 stops in January-March 2012 are up from 183,326 in the same period last year.  The Times, by the way, is not all that excited about the change, apparently, as the article played on page 22, dwarfed in column inches by a report on shoreline erosion in Rhode Island.  This does not make it any less important a subject for the public conversation.  It just reflects the considered judgment of the city’s mainstream liberal establishment.

I want to participate in the conversation John has started with his question.  I’ll do that by offering these factors the question prompted me to think about.

1.  I think it’s fair to consider that whatever the NYPD is up to, they have made history by the degree to which they have helped make NYC safe.  The people who are not dying are the people who have been doing the dying in NYC murders for a few decades: young Black and Hispanic men.  The pre-eminent researcher in homicide studies, Franklin Zimring, found this about New York’s crime decreases in the past 20 years. He has published The City that Became Safe and he wrote in Scientific American,

“THE FIRST NINE YEARS of New York City’s crime decline were part of a much broader national trend, an overall drop of nearly 40 percent that started in the early 1990s and ended in 2000. It was the longest and largest nationwide crime drop in modern history. What sets New York apart from this general pattern is that its decline was twice as large as the national trend and lasted twice as long.”

2.  Does the number mean over 203,000 different persons were stopped or that over 203,000 stops were made.  How many were repeats, both from last year to this and historically?

When I worked for the Boston PD with Supt. Paul Joyce we did a quick study in 2000 that looked at everyone who was subject to at least one arrest or Field Interrogation Observation report (stop) in the previous 3 years in the Grove Hall neighborhood of Dorchester.  We found just 457 individuals, in a neighborhood viewed by most people — regardless of skin color, address, social class or gender, etc. — as dangerous.  That cohort had generated nearly 12,000 adult and juvenile arraignments.  Clearly the cops were not casting a wide net.  They were stopping and arresting people who led intensely criminal lives.  NYPD should consider reporting such an analysis with the stop data.

In NYC, where were people stopped? What are the criteria for making stops (and why is it so hard to find NYPD’s policy on stop, question and frisk on the web)?  Were 100% of the stops supported by an articulable (and articulated) suspicion on the part of the officer?  Officers need probable cause to arrest and search but under the Supreme Court rule (Terry v. Ohio) they need “articulable suspicion” to do a stop, ask questions and perform an exterior pat-down frisk for their own safety.

Absent more analysis the 200,000+ becomes either a scary-sounding or reassuring number based on one’s ideology and biases and not on complete information.  This report  does not tell us as much as it seems to.

3.  I have great faith in Commissioner Kelly and the only other NYPD big boss I know personally, Deputy Commissioner for Management Michael J. Farrell.  They are two of the most thoughtful justice professionals you will ever meet. I just can’t see them flouting one set of rights to uphold another.  Others need to know that, too.  The Department has a great opportunity to engage New Yorkers in the aforementioned public conversation about the big-picture values, philosophy of policing and strategy that guides them.

This is the chance to have a very public discussion of how police balance two very important protections promised in the Constitution.  One has to do with the Preamble’s aspiration to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility…promote the general Welfare” and the other is the 4th Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure by the state.

5.  What is the correlation between homicides and stops?  Is there a “tipping point” relationship?  In a New Yorker piece on June 3, 1996, before the publication of his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell reported on a study by ER docs who did an analysis and identified a tipping point relationship between drive-by homicides and the rate at which the overall homicide rate rose in LA and LA County. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, their study found that once the number of drive-by murders passed a certain point, homicide in general tipped violently upward.

When the formerly-independent NY transit police under Bill Bratton, Jack Maple and John Linder addressed fare-beating and graffiti vandalism on the subway they got a huge decrease in crime on the system and a subsequent renewal of confidence by riders.  That is, ridership went up. They found a correlation among the outward signals of disorder — routine turnstile-jumping and filthy, scary-looking subway cars — and crime.  They also found that a large proportion of subway victimizers jumped turnstiles to start the work day.

6.  Mayor Bloomberg was not wrong about eventually seeing fewer guns.  The mayor seems to genuinely abhor gun violence and he just got impatient. There exists a strong hypothesis that when system agents pay a lot attention to a crime dynamic, they change the behavior of the people who make up that dynamic. That’s a bit of what “Broken Windows” is about. It just takes time.

When the Probation service in Dorchester (MA) District Court started violating probationers after a few decades in which almost no one violated anybody, some people worried that he and his guys were just jacking up Black and Hispanic guys for “Mickey Mouse shit.”  What happened was that the number of violators as a proportion of all probationers rose and then leveled off, arguably reaching the equilibrium that is proper when the system functions.

So, Dr. DeCarlo and all my friends, there it is.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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