Stop, Frisk, and Assault? Racial Disparities in Police Use of Force during Investigatory Stops

By Kramer, Rory; Remster, Brianna | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Stop, Frisk, and Assault? Racial Disparities in Police Use of Force during Investigatory Stops


Kramer, Rory, Remster, Brianna, Law & Society Review


Police make contact with nearly 44 million Americans annually in the United States (Hyland et al. 2015). While the overall rate of contact remained stable from 2002 to 2011, urban residents around the country experienced a substantial increase in investigative police stops, known as stop-and-frisks. In New York City specifically, the number of stop-and-frisks increased threefold from 2003 to 2009 and were disproportionately concentrated among racial and ethnic minorities (Meares 2014). Indeed, black NYC residents are approximately 2.5 times more likely to be stopped than white residents, net of germane factors including neighborhood context and crime rates (Gelman et al. 2007). Yet beyond the act of being stopped, less is known about whether inequality exists in terms of what happens once individuals are stopped.

As the state's legitimized form of physical coercion over citizens, racial disparities in police use of force are perhaps one of the most extreme examples of racial inequality. This is, in part, why accusations of racial bias in police use of force have been and continue to be a common focal point of civil unrest in the United States. From the 1960s in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago, to the recent protests that coalesced under the #BlackLivesMatter moniker in response to the deaths of young black victims such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Laquan McDonald in Chicago, and others, accusations of unjustified use of force against black victims persist. Indeed, recent investigations by the Department of Justice into those cities found evidence of civil rights violations by police, as did investigations into Albuquerque, Cleveland, and Seattle police among others. Protesters assert that the well-documented racial inequalities in the likelihood of being stopped are exacerbated by policing bias in the likelihood that force is used during stops, and that the bias is particularly harmful for black youth. Public discourse focuses on civilian behavior during police encounters, with many suggesting that black people are more likely to be doing something wrong at the time than white people, thus precipitating police use of force. In this scenario, civilian behavior, not racial bias, is thought to drive police use of force. Despite these competing explanations for police use of force, no systematic research testing these propositions exists.

The dearth of research on this topic is in part due to data limitations; however, this has recently begun to change. Since the 1990s, data collection by police has become increasingly common, but agencies only began disseminating data in the last few years. The New York Police Department (NYPD) was among the first to publicly release detailed data on investigatory stops as part of a legal settlement (Daniels et al. v. City of New York 1999). Subsequent analyses of this data helped convince a federal judge to declare NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional due to racial bias (Floyd v. City of New York 2013). Even before that ruling, New York began to roll back the use of stop-and-frisk. Stops dropped from a high of 685,724 in 2011 to under 50,000 in 2014. While critics considered NYPD's shift away from stop-and-frisk and the court's ruling to be monumental victories, it is unknown whether this dramatic drop reduced racial inequality in police violence during stops.

We fill these voids in existing research, focusing specifically on New York City. We test the claim, re-energized by the Black Lives Matter movement, that black civilians, especially black youth, are more likely to be subject to physical force during a police encounter than white civilians, after adjusting for other factors related to police use of force. We also examine whether or not black individuals are more likely to experience police violence during stops that end in arrest and/or the recovery of contraband or a weapon than whites, as criminal behavior is a common alternative explanation for high profile instances of police use of force against black civilians. …

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