Police Need to Do a Better Job of Explaining Stop-and-Frisk


Dec 6, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in New York Daily News on December 6, 2007.

Good relations between the police and the public are a cornerstone of civil society. Everyday interactions between cops and citizens are at the heart of what defines those relations.

Police stops of pedestrians and vehicles, while an important tool in police work, can fuel tensions if not handled properly. This is especially true for members of minority communities, who have such encounters with police more often than whites. Indeed, research conducted in New York, Cincinnati and Oakland, Calif., by the RAND Corporation confirms nonwhites bear the brunt of interactions with police in motor vehicle and pedestrian stops.

But the fact that minorities are more likely than whites to be stopped by police does not necessarily mean police engage in discrimination against minorities. In the cities in which RAND has researched police practices, we have typically found whites, blacks and Hispanics have about equal odds of being stopped by the police when the time, location, reason and other factors relevant to the stop are taken into account.

So, seemingly contradictory statements are true: Minorities experience a disproportionate share of interactions with the police, but the interactions are generally explained by factors other than race. One reason is that police typically devote more of their resources, including patrol, to high-crime neighborhoods. High-crime neighborhoods frequently have more minority residents. Thus, minority residents typically have greater exposure to police enforcement efforts than white residents.

What happens after the stop is, in some ways, more important than the stop itself. Here we have found, in some cases, disparate outcomes for minorities that cannot be easily explained by available data. In Oakland in 2004, we found that once stopped, blacks were more likely to be subjected to a discretionary search than whites. In Cincinnati, we saw communication problems between white officers and black motorists and between black officers and white motorists.

And in New York (and Cincinnati), we found a small fraction of officers had racial disparities in their stop patterns compared with peers who were patrolling at the same time and same place.

Law enforcement agencies must develop plans to address the disparities and tensions that result from their efforts - and most, including the NYPD, are already doing just this. Our work around the country suggests some clear strategies.

First, the police must give the community a real voice in examining race-related problems. When we worked in Oakland on racial-profiling issues, the police brought numerous community and civil rights groups to the table. The result was a process that yielded solutions that police and community leaders could stand behind.

Second, the police must acknowledge that officer allocations and more intensive policing strategies may lead to racially disparate effects.

They should be honest about the racial ramifications of those strategies and open to practices that will mitigate racially disparate impacts without compromising effective crime control.

Finally, there is a burden on .police and community members to be open to effective partnerships when there are perceived problems. Often, the identification of racial disparities leads to the formation of opposing sides without seeking to identify the specific policies and enforcement practices that are the root cause of the disparities. A better strategy would be for the community groups and law enforcement to jointly explore why there are unexplainable racial disparities.

Integrating these principles into police planning should help improve police relations with the public. We hope more police departments can develop such approaches and cultivate their most important asset, the public.

Riley and Ridgeway, researchers at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, worked on the recent study examining the NYPD's stop, question and frisk practices.

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