The New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk strategy has sparked a heated national debate in the last two years, with attention-grabbing statistics on both sides. Critics point to data showing that the aggressive search tactic is used in hugely disproportionate numbers on innocent black and Latino New Yorkers. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have dismissed these concerns, claiming that stop-and-frisk has dramatically reduced the city's murder rate.
"Nobody should ask Ray Kelly to apologize – he's not going to and neither am I – for saving 5,600 lives," Bloomberg said at a press conference last May, after a federal judge approved a class-action lawsuit alleging that stop-and-frisk violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, as well as the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That lawsuit is set to conclude this week; although a decision is not expected for months, the federal judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, offered surprisingly "blunt" criticism of the policy during Monday's closing arguments.
Experts say that Bloomberg's equation of more stop-and-frisk searches with fewer murders is far too simplistic. In fact, according to sociologist Anthony Harris, the reduction in New York City homicides – which hit a record low of 414 murders in 2012, down from a historic high of 2,245 murders in 1990 – doesn't have much to do with stop-and-frisk at all. A more important factor, he says: Doctors, nurses, EMTs and ambulance drivers have been getting better at bringing wounded people back from the brink.
"In interpreting the meaning of homicide, people forget everything they know," says Harris, a professor at UMass-Amherst. "They don't think about the availability of high-quality emergency medical care, or the vast improvements since World War II in such care. They don't think about traffic congestion and ambulance speed, or caliber and number of bullet wounds."
In 2002, Harris wrote a groundbreaking paper called "Murder and Medicine." The study analyzed a seemingly paradoxical trend on a nationwide scale: Between 1960 and 1999, the rate of aggravated assault increased, while the rate of homicide went down. In other words, people were committing more acts of violence, but fewer of those attacks resulted in death. Examining this trend, Harris and his colleagues found that the drop in the national homicide rate was "primarily attributable to developments in trauma care."
The New York Times Magazine included Harris's paper in its "2002 Year in Ideas" section, calling the paper an "intellectual hand grenade." Yet despite the fanfare, policing tactics continued to receive credit as New York's homicide rate kept falling.
More recent studies confirm that in the past decade, advances in trauma care remained a driving force behind falling murder rates. A 2012 Wall Street Journal investigation showed that between 2001 and 2011, nationally, the number of people who had been shot and wounded severely enough to require a hospital stay rose almost 50 percent. Yet over the same period, the national death rate from shootings declined – dropping nearly two full percentage points between 2007 and 2010 alone.
According to Dr. Adil Haider, the co-director of the Howard-Hopkins Surgical Outcomes Research Center, which performed the analysis for the Journal, many of the recent advances in trauma care have come from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. "In 2004, '05 and '06, we learned a lot about improving the type of blood transfusions and the management of traumatic brain injury," says Haider. Significant breakthroughs have also included an increased focus on controlling bleeding and stabilizing patients before operations.
Another factor driving down homicide rates across the U.S. is the proliferation of trauma centers. Today, New York City boasts 16 Level 1 trauma centers, including one devoted to pediatric care. (In comparison, all 9.9 million residents of Los Angeles County have access to only five Level 1 trauma centers, plus several more Level 2 centers.) Research shows that access to a Level 1 trauma center is often the deciding factor between life and death, with patients 20 percent more likely to die if they are transported to a Level 2 facility.
It's no surprise that Bloomberg has turned to the homicide rate in his efforts to defend stop-and-frisk. It's one of the most emotional statistics available. But the fact remains that stop-and-frisk has in no demonstrable way contributed to the city's reduced homicide rate.
Before becoming police commissioner, Ray Kelly famously quipped that, with all the factors that affect the crime rate, trying to claim responsibility for its decline is "like trying to take credit for an eclipse." Today, it's worth asking: What's the proper analogy for a mayor trying to credit aggressive stop-and-frisk policing for the city's reduction in murders when so much evidence suggests that better medicine deserves our praise instead?