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2012 Spring Issue 6 (May 11, 2012)

Feigenbaum: Policy, a Game of Difficult Tradeoffs

May 11, 2012
By Sam Feigenbaum

When I was little, my grandmother liked to tell me, “The older I get, the more I study, the more I realize how little I know.”

There’s a lot of us on this DC Seminar that think we have law school somewhere in our future, and as you might expect, we like to debate policy.  In other words, we argue endlessly.  Sometimes we have productive discussions, but all too often we fall back on our tried and true political positions without really considering all the facts.

Let me give you an example.  Last week we were in New York City.  We began to debate the New York Police Department’s “zero tolerance” policy.  Many of us declared our steadfast opposition to it.  I did too–– but then I did a little research.

New York City has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence over the past three decades.  In the 1970’s, the City suffered from a falling population as New Yorkers fled to the suburbs amidst rising crime rates.  Today, New York enjoys its highest population ever and a murder rate that is at an all-time low.  Despite its grit and grime, New York City is now one of America’s safest big cities.

Why is this? How did this turnaround take place?  Criminologists point to a couple of trends.  The end of the crack and cocaine epidemic coincided with increasing gentrification in America’s cities.  But, in New York City, falling crime rates also coincided with the adoption of “zero-tolerance”–– an aggressive stop and frisk policy that targeted the city’s Hispanic and black populations. “Zero-tolerance” targets these communities because they have higher crime rates. Now, many folks critique stop and frisk as an erosion of the civil liberties of minority Americans.  Some also critique it as an ineffective crime prevention policy because of the resentment it engenders in minority communities.  But what if there’s a causal relationship between stop and frisk and falling crime rates?  Numerous academics and police officials argue just this.  Though there are also many academics on the other side of the issue, let’s assume for the purposes of this argument that stop and frisk is a primary reason behind a safer New York City.

With this in mind, at least for me, stop and frisk becomes a much more complicated issue.  At first thought, I object vehemently to a stop and frisk policy that targets minority populations.  It is unjust and unfair and is likely to increase bitterness toward government in already marginalized communities.  But if stop and frisk policy really works and causes lower crime rates I feel like I must consider the policy at length despite my initial gut objection.

So do I support stop and frisk? At first, I’d say no. But like my grandmother cautioned, after some study and research, I’m not so sure anymore.  I think if I was in charge of NYC’s police department I would support transitional stop and frisk.  If crime rates are high, institute stop and frisk.  If crime rates go down, end stop and frisk.  Beef up other community crime prevention programs.  If crime rates stay low, no need to go back to stop and frisk.  If crime rates go back up, stop and frisk may be an unfortunate necessity.  Keeping crime rates low is that important–– cities only flourish when people believe they’re safe.

The larger point here is that I think we all must open ourselves to considering ideas we object to initially.  Evaluating policy is nearly always a game of difficult tradeoffs: balancing the upside and downside of any one proposal.  To do this effectively we must strive to keep our objectivity and an open mind.

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