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It Takes A Lot Of Stop-And-Frisks To Find One Gun

Shootings are on the rise this year in New York City, and the trends are raising questions about whether Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to cut down on stop-and-frisk tactics has made it easier to carry guns in New York. The best data available on stop-and-frisk makes it clear that the search tactic turned up relatively few guns in terms of number of stops conducted.

Beginning in 2007, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to get the NYPD’s data on its stop-and-frisk encounters and what was found. In 2012, the NYPD made more than 532,000 stops, each of which could progress to a frisk or to a full search. The police found guns only 715 times.1 In other words, guns were found during 0.1 percent of stops.

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That figure casts doubt on whether stop-and-frisks are useful in finding weapons and taking them off the street, but it is also the least generous way of judging the NYPD’s program. Officers might stop passers-by for a variety of reasons (matching the description of someone involved in a crime, appearing to be involved in a drug deal, etc.), and, in many of these cases, the goal is not to find weapons.

The NYCLU data set shows that 23 percent of all stops and searches were prompted by concerns about a possible weapon.2 The police did find guns more often in these cases (36 of every 10,000 weapon-related stops compared with seven of every 10,000 non-weapon-related stops). However, this still seems like a low success rate, and it may be skewed. Police officers write up their reasons for a stop afterward and can retroactively claim gun-related causes after finding the weapon, even if they weren’t the true reason for the stop.

The volume of stops meant that the NYPD wound up finding hundreds of guns, even though the chances of finding one on any particular stop were small. Overall, the guns found through stop-and-frisks accounted for about 18 percent of all 3,928 guns that New York City found and traced through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2012.3

De Blasio claims that pulling cops off of stop-and-frisk work will allow them to focus more on community policing, building ties that will pay off in the long term in reducing crime. His critics, including former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, argue that the mere possibility of being searched is a psychological deterrent to carrying a gun in the city. The numbers available aren’t convincing enough to win the argument for either side.

Footnotes

  1. Guns include pistols, rifles, assault weapons or machine guns. The database includes information on “another type of weapon,” but these counts were excluded because those may be knives or blackjacks.
  2. These cues included “carrying suspicious object,” “suspicious bulge,” “other suspicion of weapons,” “inappropriate attire for season,” “hard object” and “outline of weapon.”
  3. The true percentage might be higher: The NYCLU database tracks the number of stops in which a gun was found, but some stops may have yielded multiple guns.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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