Two weeks after a federal judge declared New York City's stop-and-frisk policing unconstitutional is an odd time to ask the question, but here goes: Would New York-style stop-and-frisk policing reduce Baltimore homicides to such a low level that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal of growing the city by 10,000 families would start to look plausible, even overly modest?
More directly: Would a general stop-and-frisk order have saved Delmonte Thomas' life? As of Friday, he was Baltimore's latest homicide victim — not even 20 years old, gunned down in West Baltimore a few blocks from Coppin State University, on Westwood Avenue, about 10:20 p.m. Thursday. Had Baltimore police been conducting stop-and-frisks of young African-American men in the most violent sections of this sprawling, under-populated city — East, West and Northwest Baltimore — might they have prevented Thomas' death?
Impossible to know, of course. But the police chief and mayor of New York City would likely say that if their policy were used here, it could have led to the confiscation of the gun used to shoot Thomas — maybe even the one used in the slaying in Baltimore County on Wednesday morning of Officer Jason Schneider. While there is little published research to support their claims, police Chief Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg believe their policy has saved thousands of lives and contributed mightily to New York City's impressive drop in homicides and crime overall.
On Dec. 28, as New York homicides fell to a record low, Bloomberg's office pointed out the following in a news release: "If New York City had Baltimore's murder rate, New York City would have a total of more than 2,870 murders this year."
New York City has 13 times as many people as Baltimore but only had 414 homicides in 2012. Baltimore had 217, up from 197 the year before. With Delmonte Thomas' death Thursday night, Baltimore had 152 homicides so far in 2013. New York had 213.
So, of course, even after the federal judge's rebuke of New York City's stop-and-frisk policy, Baltimoreans ask the question: If it worked in the Big Apple, why not here?
And if an appellate court overturns the federal judge's ruling, should the Baltimore Police Department consider a general stop-and-frisk order that goes beyond its current practice?
The current practice here follows the 1968 Supreme Court ruling (Terry v. Ohio), which held that police officers can — with reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, or that a person "may be armed and presently dangerous" — stop and frisk him. That practice does not violate the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure, the court said. It's a basic police academy lesson that has been around for decades.
In addition, Baltimore police sometimes conduct a "consent search." Daniel Webster reminded me of this practice when I contacted him last week. He is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and a deputy director of the Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. He has observed Baltimore police practices firsthand.
"I've done ride-alongs with units that will specifically announce to those on the street that they are looking for guns and not drugs," Webster reports. "They do pat-downs for weapons rather than go through pockets looking for marijuana or other drugs. This sends a message to the thugs carrying loaded weapons that they'd better not be packing, and a message to others that the purpose is to increase safety, not to lock up large numbers of young men of color."
For those of us who believe the war on drugs is a failure, and want to see gun violence diminished, that's an enticing idea for Baltimore: "We want your guns, not your drugs."
In his research among incarcerated juveniles here, Webster found that targeted policing for guns makes a difference: Young men avoid carrying firearms into the streets if they know special gun units are on patrol.
Over the past decade, Baltimore police have deployed special units into violent hot spots of the city, "flooding the zone," so to speak. "This is a policing strategy that I've evaluated in Baltimore and others have studied in other cities," Webster says. "The research has shown consistently positive impacts on gun violence — statistically significant reductions in shootings."
As much as those practices are employed already, it sounds like they could be expanded or re-energized. "Bad guys with guns," the credo of former police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld, needs to remain the focus, perhaps ratcheted up with targeting of violent offenders on parole or probation, and juveniles who've been arrested with guns or who've survived shootings.
The Constitution sometimes gets in the way of sweeping police practices believed intuitively to be effective. Baltimore police will need to balance aggressive gun enforcement in the shadow of the New York ruling, should it survive appeals.
"There is a difference between very broad-scale stop-and-frisk policies used [in New York City] and more targeted efforts by special units," Webster says. "While both can reduce shootings, more targeted approaches with special units, well-trained and supervised, yield fewer complaints of harassment."