Criminologist: ‘Stop, Question, Frisk’ can curb gun violence in Pittsburgh

The increase in gun violence in Pittsburgh has prompted city officials and residents to seek ways to combat the problem.

A Carnegie Mellon University criminologist recommends an approach that has sparked controversy and debate elsewhere.

Daniel Nagin, a professor of public policy and statistics at Carnegie Mellon, calls for a temporary and targeted use of stop, question, and frisk — a proactive policing method in which law enforcement officials n don’t need a search warrant or probable cause to arrest and pat someone.

The method has been found to disproportionately affect people of color. It drew the ire of some New Yorkers when it was used in the Big Apple under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

“Being stopped, questioned and frisked has real social implications. I think there’s been a justifiable backlash to the overuse of this in New York City,” Nagin said.

But Nagin said he thinks the approach could work in Pittsburgh if used temporarily in the city’s most criminal neighborhoods.

“There’s good evidence that it’s effective in mitigating violence,” he said.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Independent Citizen Policing Review Commission, isn’t so sure.

“It would certainly escalate tensions (and) go a long way to destroying community-police relations,” Pittinger said. “We can’t stop everyone, and neither should we. If you have a probable reason to search, go for it…but a blanket approach just creates bigger problems.”

Homicides reach highest level in 8 years

Gun violence in Pittsburgh has skyrocketed this year. The city’s nearly 70 homicides in 2022 are the highest in eight years.

Victims include a 4-year-old girl and her mother who were fatally shot at a Lincoln-Lemington grocery store, three people who were shot at a bus stop near Allegheny Commons and two teenage boys who were fatally shot during a party. inside an Airbnb on the north side.

It’s unclear how the Pittsburgh police are now using stop, question, and frisk.

The police leadership declined to give interviews about the method or proposed municipal legislation to address it.

“The Bureau of Police must act within the law regarding when an officer can arrest an individual and initiate a search,” read a statement from Acting Chief Thomas Stangrecki. “An increase in violence does not negate current law or policy, or minimize the rights of citizens and subject them to unwarranted search protocols.”

The office has a policy against racial profiling and “biased policing.”

“Officers may not use race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, age, cultural group, or ability/disability of an individual to speak English, as criteria for determining when or how to take enforcement action or provide policing,” an office policy states.

The Pittsburgh City Council should reintroduce a measure to counter the overuse of stop, question, and frisk.

When introduced last January by Councilman Ricky Burgess, the measure required Pittsburgh police officers to use a body-worn camera or vehicle-mounted recording device to document their reasonable suspicion of having initiated a stop, a question and a search.

“Police stop and frisk disproportionately affect African Americans,” Burgess said at the time. “Almost 70% of these encounters are with black people. It creates an atmosphere of intimidation.”

He said his bill would reduce racial profiling during such stops because officers would have to document a clear reason for initiating the stop.

In a recent interview, Burgess pointed out that the legislation “was designed to increase confidence in the police”.

“You can’t have enough police, on their own, to eliminate crime,” Burgess said. “But any policing activity – we have to balance the short-term effect with the long-term consequences.”

“What we’re trying to do is not get in the way of the police,” he added. “We believe that if they have to document the stop, there will be fewer stops. We want to help them use their police powers more accurately.”

The elements of race

Ron Idoko feels that stopping, questioning and digging around is no problem.

The associate director of the Center on Race & Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh said recent history has been pretty decisive about the method’s use in places like New York.

“The data was very, very clear – it disproportionately affects black people. And the vast majority of those arrested don’t have weapons or paraphernalia (drugs),” Idoko said. “I don’t quite understand why people are recommending it as a solution.”

Idoko thinks the solution needs to be a little more nuanced and involve people “from different disciplines” to forge responses to violent crime. He also wants “people to deeply sympathize with those affected by this.”

“The evidence is clear – this method of policing has a horrific effect on communities of color,” he said. “I don’t think it makes Pittsburgh any safer. I understand that people are worried about violence … but I think we should dig deeper to see where those issues are coming from.”

“Plan for Peace”

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey ran for mayor in 2021, at least in part on a platform of Pittsburgh police reform. Since taking office, he has worked with Burgess and others to craft what he calls his “Plan for Peace.”

As part of the measure, unveiled in early June, the city created a program to provide grants to community organizations focused on violence prevention. The plan also proposed pairing traditional city policing with a code enforcement approach to cleaning up neighborhoods, including removing trash, weeds, and abandoned vehicles and fixing lighting, sidewalks, and more.

Another proposal recommended working to prevent the spread of disease and addiction by providing safe injection supplies, fentanyl test kits and treatment options for drug addicts.

Gainey stressed that the police will continue to enforce the law.

“A public health approach to eliminating violence does not replace or conflict with law enforcement,” he told reporters at the time. “Creating safety for all requires a range of strategies, including the presence of people trained to deal with life-threatening violence.”

The idea is not new. Former Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay, who left the city in 2016, stood up for him, and he was also championed by Chief Scott Schubert, who left earlier this year.

After a sharp drop in violent crime in 2017 and early 2018, officials attributed the decline in part to the targeted deterrence approach.

A spokesperson for Gainey did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

“I maintain my recommendation”

Nagin admits his proposal to move forward with more targeted stop, question and search tactics is controversial.

“Even with good coordination, some circles will react negatively to this tactic, given the circumstances,” he said. “I stand by my recommendation.”

To illustrate, Nagin cites academic research from Chicago.

In 2016, homicides in Chicago jumped 54% from the previous year. The increase was concentrated in a small number of poor, largely black neighborhoods, and different explanations have been offered for the increase, wrote Nagin and co-author Charles Manski in an essay titled “Confrontational Proactive Policing: Benefits , Costs and Disparate Racial Impacts”.

The men wrote that “the Chicago police’s optimal response should be an increase in their use of proactive confrontational tactics,” such as stop, question, and frisk.

“The optimality of such a response is supported by a review of studies of the effectiveness of intensive pedestrian and vehicle stops in high-violence settings,” they added. “This review finds that such stops (stop, question and frisk) reduce gun violence by up to 49 percent.”

Nagin and Manski were aware of the context.

“The lethal use of force by police in cities large and small across the United States has led to protests, riots and heated debates,” they wrote in the essay, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Public criticism of the police, however, goes far beyond the use of deadly force,” the essay states. “The long-running controversy over the New York Police Department’s widespread use of the stop, question, and search tactic during Mayor Bloomberg’s administration reflects a broader set of public concerns (that the tactics) can interfere in the lives of innocent citizens even though they can be effective in preventing crime.”

Pittinger, from the Citizen Police Council, said the tactic could reduce violent crime in a particular area – but she fears it could set a dangerous precedent.

“There are a lot of people in the community who want to see everyone arrested,” she said. “But that’s not how it happens.”


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