New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a new kind of crime statistic. It is not the astoundingly low number of murders committed in his fair city -- 471 in 2009 vs. about 2,000 per year in the 1980s -- but murders not committed in the last decade: 5,600. Those people are alive today by the grace of God and the policing policies of the Bloomberg administration, particularly what is known as stop-and-frisk. New York City is heaven on earth possibly because it is a certain kind of hell for young black and Hispanic men.
Here, too, the mayor has his statistics, and they are as fittingly gargantuan as the city itself: 685,724. That is the number of times last year the police stopped someone on the street and frisked him (or the occasional her) for weapons. (In 2002, the figure was 97,296.) For all that effort, the results are paltry: 780 guns confiscated. To the mayor's critics, that shows there is something awfully wrong with the program.
But to the mayor and his defenders, the low rate of returns proves that the program is working. The gun-toters of yesteryear know better than to walk the streets of New York packing heat. This means that when one gentleman disrespects another gentleman, one or the other of them does not reach for a gun. The proof in this case is not the number of guns seized but the number of bodies not taken to the morgue. Bloomberg has a point.
Inevitably, there is a racial aspect to all this. Young black and Hispanic men constitute only 4.7 percent of the city's population, yet in 2011 they represented about 42 percent of all stops. For some critics of the program, this statistic is both damning and, as they say, dispositive: The program is racist on its face. But as Bloomberg -- but not his critics -- notes, blacks and Hispanics comprise 90 percent of all murder victims. The only people who don't seem to know this are certain politicians pandering for votes and The New York Times, whose recent editorial on this issue omitted awkward statistics regarding the ethnicity of both killers and their victims.
I am neither young nor black (or Hispanic) but if I were, I'd sure abhor stop-and-frisk. It has to be infuriating to be stopped from time to time by the very cops I am paying to protect me. The presumption of guilt based mostly on color or ethnicity (and youth) raises profound civil liberties issues and clearly alienates elements of the minority community. We bend over backward to protect the innocent or the not-yet-guilty from police abuse -- the Miranda rule, the right to a lawyer -- and yet permit the cops to invade the privacy and personal space of just about anyone.
Still, the Bloomberg statistic resonates. New York City is largely crime free (except for Wall Street), and that, as the number-crunching mayor is glad to tell you, is central to a robust economy. Whole areas of the city have risen from the dead. Stores have opened. People stroll the streets. The sound of a car alarm is almost nostalgic and the handmade sign to save thieves the bother -- "No Radio" -- is seen no more. New York is a vast movie set.
As with the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, race is not only a complicating and highly emotional factor but one that does not always get discussed in an open manner. A suffocating silence blankets these incidents. Accusations of racism are hurled at those who so much as mention the abysmal homicide statistics -- about half of all murders are committed by blacks, who represent just 12.6 percent of the population -- and they come, more often than not, from liberals who advocate candor in (almost) all things. Others reply as if there are not basic questions of civil rights and civil liberties at stake.
The dangers of generalizations and of stereotyping should be obvious. So, too, are the dangers of crime and its pernicious effects on its victims -- not just the immediate ones, but whole neighborhoods and, after a while, the whole city. The argument Bloomberg makes is a good one; so, too, is the one made by those who worry about the cost to racial and ethnic harmony of repeated and clearly enraging stop-and-frisks. This is an issue worthy of a full-throated debate, not recourse to censorious political correctness. All voices should be heard -- including those of Bloomberg's 5,600.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group