Social Psychology Research Paper

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

Rory Kramer Brianna Remster

Black civilians are more likely to be stopped by police than white civilians net of relevant factors. Less is known about whether or not racial inequalities exist in police use of force during stops. Using data on over 2 million police stops in New York City from 2007 to 2014 and drawing on literatures on race, policing, and the Black Lives Matter movement, we test hypotheses regarding the associations between race, civilian behavior, age, and police use of force. We also investigate whether recent reforms reduced any observed inequality in police violence during stops. Findings show that Black and White civilians experience fundamentally different interactions with police. Black civilians are particularly more likely to experience poten- tial lethal force when police uncover criminal activity and this disparity is greatest for black youth compared to white youth. Overall, if there were no racial disparities in police use of force, we estimate that approximately 61,000 fewer stops of black civilians would have included police use of force and 1,000 fewer stops would have included potential lethal force from 2007 to 2014. Furthermore, while reform efforts substantially reduced the num- ber of stops annually, inequalities in police use of force persist.

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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 investi- gative 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 citi- zens, racial disparities in police use of force are perhaps one of

We thank Laurie Krivo, Chris Smith, and members of the Penn and Rutgers Sociology Colloquia for helpful feedback and Denise Wilson for research assistance.

Please direct all correspondence to Rory Kramer, Department of Sociology and Crimi- nology, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA 19085. rory.kramer@villanova.edu.

Law & Society Review, Volume 52, Number 4 (2018) © 2018 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.

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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 #BlackLi- vesMatter moniker in response to the deaths of young black vic- tims such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Laquan McDonald in Chicago, and others, accusa- tions 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 dis- course 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 compet- ing 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 limi- tations; 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 encoun- ter than white civilians, after adjusting for other factors related to police use of force. We also examine whether or not black individ- uals are more likely to experience police violence during stops

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that end in arrest and/or the recovery of contraband or a weapon than whites, as criminal behavior is a common alternative expla- nation for high profile instances of police use of force against black civilians. Additionally, we assess whether recent NYPD reforms to the use of investigatory stops as a policing practice and changes in officer training affect any observed inequalities in police use of force.

New York City is a compelling research setting because it is widely viewed as a model for proactive policing. In response to a crime wave in the early 1990s, the NYPD implemented an espe- cially visible aggressive stop-and-frisk policy which was then expanded into the next decade. Moreover, there is little reason to expect New York to be an outlier in the broader pattern of police use of force in the United States. In fact, given that the NYPD was subject to some of the strongest early contemporary critiques of racial discrimination after the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999, which the City settled via lawsuit, and that New York was under judicial oversight for racial disparities in stop-and-frisk dur- ing our observation period, the city may represent a conservative test of racial disparities in police use of force. On the other hand, New York was also the site of several large Black Lives Matter pro- tests after Eric Garner’s death and the subsequent acquittal of Officer Pantaleo. Regardless, a recent report analyzing police use of force in a multicity sample found similar patterns across juris- dictions ranging in size, demographics, and region. Although cit- ies differ in the degree of racial inequality in police use of force, there is a general pattern of racial inequality across localities (Goff et al. 2016).

Prior Research on Police Stops and Use of Force

As the legal rulings regarding stop-and-frisk focused on its efficacy in finding weapons and preventing crime, so too has most of the research (for a review, see Meares 2014). However, the original case involved police using force against an individual (Terry) who had not yet performed a criminal act (he was prepar- ing to commit armed robbery when stopped). Stuntz (1998) argues that the Supreme Court and researchers mistakenly focus on the legitimacy of the search and not when police use force against individuals. Stuntz’s critique remains apt today, particu- larly because foundational scholars conceptualize police capacity for use of force as the defining characteristic of police work (Bittner 1970).

Although deadly police encounters are rare compared to police use of force in general, public interest may have steered

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researchers toward the most severe form of force. In the broadest sense, research finds that communities with greater racial inequal- ity have higher rates of lethal violence by police (Jacobs and O’Brien 1998, but for a recent exception, see Klinger et al. 2016). Although recently, in part due to research showing that structural factors explain only a portion of police behavior and the rise in public awareness of specific incidents of police use of force, researchers shifted focus to police use of lethal force at the indi- vidual level.

These latest studies, which adapt data from the Bureau of Jus- tice Statistics and/or crowdsourced data, show racial inequalities in who is killed by police (e.g., Guardian n.d.; mappingpoliceviolence. org, n.d.). For example, one study finds that unarmed black people are 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed whites (Ross 2015). Such research is useful for determining the scope of the issue, but conclusions are limited. For example, without a com- parison group such as nonfatal encounters, scholars cannot identify how these fatal shootings differ from other police encounters. Moreover, as these data do not contain many details of the encoun- ter, it is impossible to ascertain whether black individuals are more likely to be shot because of racial bias or due to some other reason. Indeed, there are a variety of competing explanations for why racial disparities may exist other than racial bias. While data limita- tions have hampered empirical work, scholars have long been theo- rizing about why observed disparities in police use of force might occur, highlighting a series of behavioral, contextual, and organiza- tional factors (Engel and Calnon 2004; Friedrich 1980; Geller and Toch 1996; Smith 1986; Smith and Alpert 2007).

A recent study that adjusted for a range of these factors did not find racial disparities in police shootings in Houston, but did find disparities in police use of force in general (Fryer 2016). However, Fryer compared police shootings to police encounters involving arrests in which police could have been legally justified in shooting (e.g., a person resisting arrest) and research suggests that these arrests are racialized; officers are more likely to per- ceive people of color as verbally abusive or noncompliant than whites (Geller and Fagan 2010). As a result, Fryer’s analytic strat- egy likely obscured any racial disparity in police shootings.

Unfortunately, data limitations such as those described above are not new, rather, studying police use of force has always been challenging. Because of this, most of the literature debates how to measure it and achieve representative estimates of use of force (see Garner et al. 2002; Geller and Toch 1996). For instance, most early work relied on trained observers accompanying officers on their shifts and recording any use of force, which is susceptible to bias (e.g., Terrill and Mastrofski 2002). Similarly, other work relies

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http://mappingpoliceviolence.org
http://mappingpoliceviolence.org

 

on surveys of individuals in custody (Garner et al. 1995, 2002). Additional research using surveys of the public or data collected by the police also lack enough information to rule out competing explanations (Engel and Calnon 2004; Goff et al. 2016). Also, aside from crowdsourced studies, most research to date relies on data collected in the 1990s. Taken together, these limitations may explain why previous research on racial disparities in police use of force has historically been mixed (Goff et al. 2016; Sun and Payne 2004; Terrell and Mastrofski 2002). The current study builds on previous work by (1) using contemporary data to assess disparities in police use of force, (2) using a comparison group, and (3) adjusting for competing explanations that prior research has not adequately considered, such as civilian behavior. We detail these explanations next.

Contextual Differences

A common rationale for racially unequal rates of police use of force is that black residents live in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than white residents (Smith 1986). Given that the risk of police violence is higher in disadvantaged neighborhoods (Terrill and Reisig 2003), black people may be more likely to experience police violence than white people because of where they live. Here, structural factors should explain any racial dispar- ities in police use of force. In short, the combination of racial seg- regation and poverty concentration may explain any racial inequality in police shootings (Massey and Denton 1993). These race and class differences can also affect organizational strategies, such as whether or not to aggressively use stop-and-frisk as a policing practice, which could lead to higher or lower use of force during stops. Recent research finds that context did not explain the racial disparity, but rather moderated it. Consistent with racial threat theory, the racial disparity in police use of force is greatest in segregated precincts (Levchak 2017).

Behavioral and Situational Differences

Racial disparities in crime rates are perhaps the default expla- nation for any observed inequalities in policing (Goff et al. 2016; MacDonald 2011). For example, if police shootings occur at ran- dom during police interactions and black individuals are three times more likely to interact with police than white individuals because of a higher rate of involvement in violent crime (Sampson and Lauritsen 1997), we would expect black individuals to be three times as likely to be shot as whites. In this case, observed racial disparities in police shootings would be due to dif- ferential involvement in crime. As evidence, recent work shows

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that violent crime rates broken down by race decreases but does not eliminate the racial disparity in police use of force (Goff et al. 2016).

Furthermore, civilian behavior during the stop may also explain racial differences in police use of force. One way civilian behavior may influence this is whether the stop is productive or not. A productive stop is one that results in an arrest or finds a weapon or other contraband (i.e., drugs). Because civilians involved in criminal activity may resist the stop in the hopes of avoiding sanctions, productive stops may require police use of force more so than unproductive stops. In other words, racial differences in the stopped person’s involvement in crime may explain any observed racial disparities. For instance, if black people are more likely to be arrested during investigatory stops, then accounting for the stop outcome might explain disparities in police use of force. On the other hand, the “hit rate” for find- ing weapons or drugs during a stop is lower for black than white civilians in NYC, thus, adjusting for the “success” of the stop could exacerbate any observed racial disparity in police use of force (Gelman et al. 2007). Unfortunately, data limitations pre- vent researchers from ascertaining the sequencing of police locating criminal activity and police use of force; police might exert force after finding a weapon or, use force and then dis- cover contraband.

Other scholars emphasize different forms of civilian behav- ior (Durna 2011; Friedrich 1980). This line of work suggests that any observed racial disparity in police use of force is due to the way black civilians behave compared to white civilians during a police encounter. Put differently, some research finds that black civilians are more hostile and noncompliant toward officers and such behaviors increase the likelihood of police use of force (Engel 2003; Garner et al. 2002). Similarly, officers are more likely to use force when a civilian is suspected of a violent crime, and given racial disparities in violent crime, black civilians may be more likely to be suspected of such than white ones (Worden 1996). In this case, unlike “hit rates,” police are more likely to report that black civilians were sus- pected of violent crime or noncompliant when stopped, thus accounting for these behaviors may decrease any observed racial disparity. Moreover, because these behaviors are racialized—officers employ racialized “scripts” for these kinds of behaviors and as a result are more likely to perceive black civilians as, for instance, noncompliant—adjusting for these behaviors will produce conservative estimates of any police vio- lence disparities (Geller and Fagan 2010; Muhammad 2010). Like with the outcome of the stop, ascertaining the timing of

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