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JPAM Point/Counterpoint Articles: Stop & Frisk (J. Fagan)

May 23, 2017 08:00 AM

As part of our ongoing effort to promote JPAM authors to the APPAM membership and the public policy world at large, we are asking JPAM authors to answer a few questions to promote their research article on the APPAM website.

By: Jeffrey Fagan, Ph.D.

Your analysis on NYPD’s “Stop, Question, and Frisk” (SQF) program and the city’s crime rates attest that the “new policing” model may not act as a crime deterrent. What data were included in this analysis and what spurred your interest in this research? 
 
In the 1990s criminologists became intrigued with both the sharp decline in crime and new policing models that had emerged during the same decade. There were a number of studies that looked at, and speculated on, the role of policing in the crime decline. In addition to new models of policing, including Broken Windows and CompStat, the crime decline through the decade was attributed to lower rates of gun violence, a waning crack epidemic, and increased rates of incarceration. But much of the analysis was focused on policing. In 1999, there was a tragic killing of an unarmed African American man, Amadou Diallo, during a botched stop and frisk in Bronx, an event that caused great pain in New York and raised tough questions about the City’s policing tactics. I was asked by the NY State Attorney General to assess evidence of racial disparities in policing, especially in its stop and frisk program. The combination of legal and constitutional questions plus the criminological issues of race and policing were very much a part of my work and my research agenda. We found that, relative to neighborhood crime rates, African Americans and Latinos were more likely to be stopped for nearly all types of crime. The study continued through the next decade because of litigation alleging both due process and equal protection constitutional violations.
 
In that second phase of that research, we had access to data from 2004 – 2012 including allocations of police to each neighborhood, the crime rates of those neighborhoods, their housing patterns, and a range of demographic and economic measures. In addition to looking at stop and crime rates by neighborhood (census tracts, actually), we also set up a series of natural experiments by comparing stop and crime rate sin public housing compared to the surrounding neighborhoods. We also looked at stop and crime rates in business districts, places with little or no residential populations a natural experiment where officers were primed only by race without the context of local crime conditions. 
 
Were there any challenges to conducting your analysis on the SQF program data, either internally or externally?
 
I would like to have known very specific allocation of people officers to neighborhoods – both to high-crime neighborhoods and low-crime neighborhoods. It would also have been helpful to know about local crime contexts, such as drug markets or local incarceration rates, as well as neighborhood amenities including churches, mental health and hospitals, and the comparative strength of neighborhood schools.
 
What is the main conclusion of your research on the NYPD’s SQF program data?
 
Over the course of the period from 2004 – 2012, we found that even as stops were declining across NYC and through an extended period of declining crime rate declined, a significant disproportionality in stops based on race remained. We also found that officers were more effective in stops of Whites in terms of seizing weapons and drugs. This was disturbing, since non-Whites were far more likely to be stopped with no returns of weapons or contraband or even the discovery of persons with outstanding warrants.
 
Did you make any recommendations based on your analysis? 
 
The U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision in Terry v. Ohio (1968) relaxed the standard that authorized a police officer to conduct a stop. Terry authorized stops based on reasonable suspicion – whether a suspect’s behavior was reasonably suspicion to conduct a stop - but the court did not specify the type or quantity of suspicion was required to justify a stop. What was “suspicious” was left to the judgment of the police officer. Before Terry, the stricter “probable cause” was required to justify a stop. The new standard was much less specific and more forgiving of officer mistakes. Terry also was nearly silent about race, opening the door to allow any biases among officers to influence their perception of “suspicion.”
 
In a study in 2016, we looked at the stops conducted from 2004-14 and compared stops based on the pre-Terry standard of probable cause and compared them to stops based on the new and more subjective standard of reasonable suspicion. We found that the crime rates where stops were conducted under probable cause rules declined faster than the crime rates in neighborhood where stops had been conducted under reasonable suspicion. We concluded that both law and policy should create a higher and more objective standard of suspicion to allow police officers to conduct stops.
 
Were there any surprises found while conducting the research on the SQF program data?
 
Our intuitions about both the inefficiency of the reasonable suspicion standard and the general inefficiency of the stop and frisk regime were supported at effect sizes greater than what we anticipated. The fact that crime continued to decline even after stops were sharply reduced was less of a surprise than the magnitude of the crime decline relative to the decline in stops. For example, in 2011, 680,000 stops were conducted, yet the continued crime decline and stop decline starting in 2012 was there was little in the way of either deterrence or crime detection that resulted from those stops. In surveys in 2012 and 2013 on the responses of people to stops, we were surprised at the extent of which people acknowledged that harshness of the treatment they received from the police. They were fairly cynical about the police and the law, generally. We found that the more often people were stopped, they suffered various symptoms of emotional stress, anxiety, feelings of being stigmatized, and in some cases, strong symptoms of post-traumatic disorder.
 
In your article, you note that recently “the ‘new policing model’ gave rise to a set of legal and social problems that undermined trust”. Based on your analysis, what might an alternative policing model look like?
 
An alternative policing model would raise the bar that authorizes police to conduct stops and engage citizens in the non-consensual policing process. We would argue to move the standard (of police stops) back toward probable cause – urging police forces to go after “big” crimes, and forego enforcement of “quality of life” or public order crimes including graffiti and marijuana possession. Instead, we argue that police should focus on solving violent crimes, bringing those offenders to justice. In the end, we argue for minimizing the exposure of people to police interactions with the promise of creating greater cooperation and a trusting relationship between neighborhoods and the police.
 
 
Author's Bio
fagan_jeffrey
Jeffrey Fagan, Ph.D., (@JFAgan46) is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He also a Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School. He served on the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academy of Science from 2000-2006. From 1996-2006, he was a member of the MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. He was a member of the 2004 National Research Council panel that examined policing in the U.S. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Criminology. From 2009-13, he served as expert witness for plaintiffs in three related civil rights cases challenging the constitutionality of the NYPD’s practice of Stop, Question and Frisk. He was an expert consultant to the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in its investigation of the Ferguson (Missouri) Police Department. He currently is a consultant and expert witness on capital punishment to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 
 

Check out this and other Journal of Policy Analysis and Management articles online.

 

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