Expert Commentary

The law and social science of stop-and-frisk tactics by the police

2014 study by Yale examining recent scholarship on the effectiveness of “stop, question and frisk” and how it affects public perceptions of and interactions with the police.


The year 2014 was a landmark one for police incidents in the news, as debates roiled over accusations of racial bias, the use of excessive force and perceived over-militarization. Key cases included the July and August deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, both of whom were black, unarmed and killed by white officers, as well as alleged “revenge killings” of two police officers in Brooklyn in December. All brought long-simmering questions about policing, fairness and justice to a boil, and in response President Obama created the Task Force on 21st-Century Policing.

In a December 2014 poll by USA Today and the Pew Research Center of 1,507 U.S. residents, those surveyed stated nearly 3-1 that the officer who killed Garner by placing him in a chokehold should have been indicted on criminal charges. The same poll reports that nearly 9 in 10 believe that police officers should wear body cameras so that interactions with members of the public are consistently documented.

Long before the deaths of Brown and Garner, police tactics and use of force have been the subject of longstanding concern. Starting in the late 2000s the “stop and frisk” tactic was a flash point of protest, and concerns over it and the similar “jump-outs” are re-emerging. In 2013 a New York judge ruled that stop-and-frisk had to be reduced and reformed, but the case has undergone a number of legal reversals. Following the November 2014 shooting of Akai Gurley by a New York City police officer, there are pending reforms on stop-and-frisk tactics in public housing. Meanwhile, in Chicago, the ACLU issued a report in March 2015 alleging that the police department has disproportionately targeted the city’s African-American community with stop and frisk tactics.

In a 2014 research review in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science, “The Law and Social Science of Stop and Frisk,” Tracey Meares of Yale Law School surveys recent scholarship on the effectiveness of the tactic, referred to as “stop, question and frisk” (SQF) in the study. Meares also reviews related laws and discusses the theory of procedural justice and how it pertains to public perceptions of, and interactions with, the police.

Overall, the research indicates that the relationship between levels of SQF and crime reduction is not strong:

  • Rosenfeld and Fornango (2014) finds few statistically significant effects of SQF measures — such as the rate of total stops, rate of stops of African American or Latino citizens, etc. — on the reduction of precinct robbery and burglary rates even in cities like New York, where a decade of dramatic crime reduction has often been partially attributed to aggressive SQF tactics.
  • A NYPD-focused study, Weisburd et al. (2014), found a strong correlation between high crime rates in a given geographic area and frequency of SQF use, but concludes that there is no clear answer on whether there is any relationship between the NYPD’s use of SQF and the reduction in crime rates over the last decade. The authors attribute this at least partially to the fact that the NYPD keeps its records closed to researchers.
  • A 2013 study completed by the New York State Office of the Attorney General found that just 0.15% of SQF stops resulted in conviction and sentencing for serious crimes (measured by prison sentences of 1 year or longer).
  • The same study also found that between 2004 and 2012, there were more than 2 million stops of African-Americans, resulting in 16,000 seizures, including 4,200 guns. During this same time period, there were roughly 430,000 stops of whites, also resulting in 16,000 seizures, including 300 guns.

Studies indicate that it is difficult to conduct SQF in a way that does not damage the relationship between the public at large and police:

  • Gau & Bronson (2010) interviewed St. Louis youth to better understand their relationship with local police. “Respondents felt that their neighborhoods had been besieged…. Many study participants characterized their involuntary contacts with police as demeaning and of inordinate frequency.”
  • Much of this sentiment was fueled by police use of SQF — 78% of youth interviewed reported being stopped at least once in their lives, with the average number of stops being 15 (Gau & Bronson 2010).
  • Solis et al. (2009) conducted similar research in New York, finding strained relationships between Latino youth and the NYPD resulting primarily from “harsh treatment during routine stops and frisks without cause or explanation.”
  • Epp et al. (2014) find that Kansas City police officers tend to stop drivers for one of two reasons: Traffic-safety enforcement, including speeding and DUIs; or investigatory stops, which are justified by low-level violations such as turning too wide or driving too slowly. Researchers found that race did not play a significant role in traffic-safety stops, but that African-Americans were more likely than whites to experience investigatory stops.
  • The same study found that during investigatory stops, African-Americans reported more disrespectful behavior from police officers than did whites. The authors found that drivers were more affected by such behavior when they felt they were being stopped for investigatory purposes.

Research on how members of the public tend to interpret and understand their interactions with police officers found they tend to focus on just a few aspects of their interaction:

  • Two studies (Tyler, 2011; Meares & Tyler, 2014) found that people tend to care a great deal about fairness in their interactions with police, and that procedural justice seems to be “critical across contexts, from courts to policing to prison, to encourage not only law-abidingness but cooperation and trust.”
  • Researchers also find that while members of the public value interpersonal treatment when evaluating interactions with law enforcement, decision-making fairness is even more important to some (Tyler, 2005; Tyler & Fagan, 2008; Meares, et al. 2014).

Research indicates that treatment of the public during interactions can have a serious impact on police legitimacy:

  • When treated disrespectfully by the police, people tend to make determinations about how the officer views them and the group(s) to which they belong. This perceived negative opinion will reduce police legitimacy. However, treating citizens respectfully and honestly even while issuing tickets or making arrests increases police legitimacy. (Tyler & Fagan, 2008).
  • While the public at large still focuses on effectiveness, perceptions of decision-making fairness and legitimacy make a big difference in whether people trust the police and law enforcement. (Meares, 2012; Tyler 2005).
  • Tyler, et al. (2014) find that among New York City youth, witnessing or experiencing more SQF stops leads to a reduced sense of the NYPD’s legitimacy, particularly in the perceived fairness of stops.

Judgments of the acceptability of police actions are increasingly based on their evaluation of the procedural justice of the action in question. “Legitimacy … can be a key driver of a healthy and properly functioning democratic government,” Meares writes. “Thus, as the most common of police actions, stops and frisks should be employed in ways that enhance good government rather than detract from it.”

Related research: A 2014 study by the RAND Corporation, “Evaluation of the Shreveport Predictive Policing Experiment,” looks at the potential impact of predictive policing — using data to create models showing where and when crime might occur, and distributing patrol and enforcement resources accordingly. The researchers, Priscillia Hunt, Jessica Saunders and John Hollywood, studied the implementation of a 2012 pilot project in six districts of the police department in Shreveport, La. They conclude: “Predictive policing is not an end-all solution, but rather a tool that must be used in concert with other policing resources as part of a broader anti-crime effort.”


Keywords: policing, youth, African-American, crime, profiling

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