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August 13, 2013 11:59 AM Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

By Ed Kilgore

In the wake of U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling that New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and a national chorus of conservative commentators are warning that violent crime rates will rise instantly if police officers are not given wide discretion to exploit suspicious behavior by suspicious people to check them for illegal weapons or contraband. The backlash to the ruling seems largely based on the implicit excuse generally offered for racial or ethnic profiling: It works!

Before we get into a national debate on the extent to which law-abiding members of society who happen to share a racial or ethnic identity with a significant number of lawbreakers are expected to sacrifice their most basic freedom to walk the streets in order to make the rest of us feel safer, we need to explore the premise that racial profiling actually works. It’s not enough to say we have these policies and violent crime has been going down; that is the classic logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc—“after this, therefore because of this.” Indeed, without clearer evidence that they contribute to effective crime-fighting, the continuation of questionable police tactics as crime rates fall could represent a greater outrage than if they were accompanied by a crime wave.

And as Kevin Drum notes today, we don’t know if such tactics are responsible for the steady drop in violent crime rates in New York, in part because they are not deployed in other places with similar trends, and in part because there are other factors contributing to crime than the freedom of potential criminals to stroll the sidewalks of New York without being regularly challenged:

If stop-and-frisk really is the reason crime has dropped so dramatically in the Bronx, then a judge would be justified in weighing this against the legal issues on the other side. Even decisions based on fundamental constitutional rights aren’t rendered in a vacuum. But if reductions in atmospheric lead are the primary reason for the drop in crime, then stop-and-frisk really has no justification at all, and the judge’s decision becomes an easy one. That’s why it’s worth getting a more definitive answer about this. Other cities have seen dramatic crime drops without expanding their stop-and-frisk programs as aggressively as New York, and it would sure be worthwhile to find out how and why that happened.

In reality, all Judge Scheindlin did was to demand a showing by the city that it was tailoring its “stop-and-frisk” practices to minimize racial discrimination and violations of the right against unreasonable searches, which is precisely what the guiding Supreme Court precedent, Terry v. Ohio, requires. So let’s have less demagoguery in reaction, and more empirical discussion of what works and why and then balance liberty concerns against demonstrated benefits to public safety achieved via minimum and fairly administered hassling of the populace.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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