What Lester Holt Got Wrong About Stop-and-Frisk in the Presidential Debate

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The controversial use of stop-and-frisk in New York was mischaracterized by everybody involved. Photo: Joe Marino/New York Daily News via Getty Images

One of the livelier, yet more obscure, disputes in Monday’s first presidential debate involved the police practice known as “stop-and-frisk” — warrantless stops of people suspected of criminal activity to search them for weapons. By way of background, Donald Trump had called for Chicago (and possibly other cities) to begin using “stop-and-frisk” tactics to curtail what he has been calling a “crime wave” — more accurately, after decades of steady declines, a spike in murders in a small number of cities. Also by way of background, the most aggressive and controversial use of stop-and-frisk had been in New York City during the administration of former mayor Michael Bloomberg — a practice the city began winding down before it was condemned as unconstitutional by a federal district judge in a decision criticized by a federal Court of Appeals panel. But Trump uses New York’s decline in murders since the early ’90s as his primary argument for expanding stop-and-frisk.

In the debate, moderator Lester Holt raised Trump’s call for nationwide stop-and-frisk and asked him if he was aware of the judicial ruling in New York. The exchange has drawn fire from commentators on the right, who argue that Holt’s challenge of Trump was factually inaccurate:

HOLT: “Stop-and-frisk” was ruled unconstitutional in New York because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men.
TRUMP: No, you’re wrong. It went before a judge who was a very against-police judge. It was taken away from her, and our mayor — our new mayor — refused to go forward with the case. They would have won on appeal. If you look at it, throughout the country, there are many places where it’s—
HOLT: The argument is that it’s a form of racial profiling.
TRUMP: No, the argument is that we have to take the guns away from these people that have them and that are bad people that shouldn’t have ’em.

While the entire exchange was characterized by half-truths and overgeneralizations, Holt’s critics have a point. The NBC anchor (and by extension Clinton) was correct that a single district-court judge declared the particular use of stop-and-frisk in New York unconstitutional — but he didn’t make it clear that stop-and-frisk has generally been upheld if conducted in a nondiscriminatory manner, most famously by Earl Warren’s Supreme Court in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio. Trump was right that the decision in New York was of dubious value as precedent (he didn’t use those words, of course, though he seemed to be gesturing in that direction), but was arguably wrong that stop-and-frisk had much if anything to do with crime reductions in New York — and also wrong in attributing the heavy use of the tactic to his buddy Rudy.

Indeed, in hastening to refute Holt and Clinton in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Giuliani undermined Trump’s own argument by making it clear stop-and-frisk was a minor operation when he was mayor. He also probably wanted to take a shot at his successor, the Clinton-endorsing Michael Bloomberg, who did indeed massively expand stop-and-frisk into a daily hassle for many innocent minority folk — until the courts finally intervened. As the New York Times pointed out in its take on the brouhaha, the rapid curtailing — but not elimination — of stop-and-frisk by the Bloomberg and then the de Blasio administrations has not, as Trump’s logic would suggest, let slip the dogs of violent crime: New York’s crime rate has continued to decline, just as it was declining before Bloomberg’s police chief stepped up the use of stop-and-frisk.

So everyone at the debate was at least half-wrong during this discussion. Maybe the subject will come back up in subsequent debates with greater clarity — but I wouldn’t bet on it.