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April 29, 2011


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Larry Rosenthal

What if it turns out to be the case that this type of intervention is remarkably successful in saving the lives of minorities? As it happens, there is a case to be made that New York City's aggressive use of stop and frisk tactics, by greatly escalating the likelihood of detection if one carries guns or drugs in public, has been central to the ability of New York to drive down its rate of violent crime. And, as it happens, I have endeavored to make just that case.

Should we be more concerned about the rates at which minorities are killed than the rates at which they are searched? Should we really be characterizing police tactics that may have saved thousands of lives -- mostly those of poor and minorities -- as a "gross waste of resources"?

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University School of Law

Bob Strassfeld

Admittedly, without having read Larry Rosenthal's article, I am skeptical of the benign face that he lends to this practice.

Larry, in your research did you find any survey data, or did you conduct your own survey, that showed that African American and Latino communities, aware of the dangers of violence, preferred to have their children searched on the streets five or six times a month to having them left unmolested?

Larry Rosenthal


I know of no survey involving the precise question you pose. My article does discuss extensive survey evidence about views of the performance of local police. It turns out that there is no statistically significant relationship between race and one's view of the performance of local police. There is, however, a very significant inverse relationship between the local crime rate and one's assessment of the performance of local police.

I have spent quite a bit of time in high crime, disproportionately minority neighborhoods. In my experience (corroborated by survey data), residents are much more concerned about violent crime than police tactics. When I was in government, I had parente beg me to have the police search their child's backpack every day after school to make sure it contained no guns or drugs. When you fear that your child cannot go about in safety, concerns about stop-and-frisk tend to be a distinctly lower priority. If you ask the residents of these neighborhoods whether they would like the police to employ aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics to fight the gangs that plague their neighborhoods, the answer is a resounding yes. Perhaps that is the more important question than the one you have posed.

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University School of Law

Bob Strassfeld


Thanks for your quick reply. I suppose I need to read your article before I make further judgement. It is far enough outside of what I do, that it may be some time before I get to it. I remain skeptical, but I understand the dilemma.

One thing that we have seen is that the "war on drugs" has led to the incarceration of large numbers of minority youth. Clearly, from the cited article, that is not the product misdemeanor charges described in the article, but I assume some stops do lead to felony prosecutions for possession of more significant amounts.

Jeff Bellin

These numbers coming out of NY are particularly shocking since NY actually tried to take small time marijuana possession out of the criminal justice system in the 1970s by making it a violation rather than a misdemeanor. My understanding is that these arrests are only allowed under New York law if the marijuana is possessed in such a way as to be open to public view (e.g., smoking it on a street corner). Must be an epidemic of brazen marijuana possession on the streets of NYC . . .

Mark A. Edwards

I've written on just this topic, if anyone is interested. I argue that many behaviors that are formally illegal occur within parameters of normatively acceptable deviance, but that because those behaviors are formally illegal, that can be used as a pretext for enforcement against otherwise impermissbly targeted populations.

Kyle Graham

I have a little piece on the phenomenon discussed in this post - as well as other crimes that implicate only small portions of the arrest-to-sentencing continuum - coming out in the Lewis & Clark Law Review in a month or so. The SSRN link is:

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