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January 02, 2014 2:40 PM Beyond Stop-and-Frisk

By Ed Kilgore

The election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York after a Democratic primary that focused significantly on opposition to NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policies cast a big spotlight on that city’s questionable police tactics. But as Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody of the University of Kansas explain in the January-February issue of the Washington Monthly, “stop-and-frisk” is just one, and by no means the most common, practice that implicitly involves racial and ethnic profiling. And the problem is far from being limited to the Big Apple:

To understand the phenomenon outside of New York City, where drivers rather than pedestrians tend to be the target of stop-and-frisk-type operations, we surveyed 2,329 drivers in and around Kansas City, a region typical of large, geographically segregated metropolitan areas in the country. The data from our survey allowed us to distinguish stops to enforce traffic safety laws—like speeding at fifteen miles per hour over the limit—from stops to investigate the driver. Our key finding is that these two types of stops differ from start to finish. In traffic safety stops, based on clear violations of the law, officers quickly issue a ticket or warning and let the driver go. In investigatory stops officers drag the stop out as they try to look at the vehicle’s interior, ask probing questions, and ultimately seek consent for a search (drivers almost always agree, telling us that they feel they have no real choice in the matter).
The key influence on who is stopped in traffic safety stops is how you drive; in investigatory stops it is who you are, and being black is the leading influence. In traffic safety stops, being black has no influence: African Americans are not significantly more likely than whites to be stopped for clear traffic safety law violations. But in investigatory stops, a black man age twenty-five or younger has a 28 percent chance of being stopped for an investigatory reason over the course of a year; a similar young white man has a 12.5 percent chance, and a similar young white woman has only a 7 percent chance. And this is after taking into account other possible influences on being stopped, like how you drive. Police focus investigatory stops on younger people, and so as people grow older they are less likely to be stopped in this way. But a black man must reach fifty—well into the graying years—before his risk of an investigatory stop drops below that of a white man under age twenty-five. Overall, black drivers are nearly three times more likely than whites to be subjected to investigatory stops.

Epp and Maynard-Moody offer a simple and very clear remedy: banning “investigatory stops” of either pedestrians or drivers and returning to the simple principle of profiling illegal behavior rather than “suspect” identities.

I agree, and would offer the additional comment that broad-brush practices like investigatory stops (along with similar “zero tolerance” policies towards minor infractions) are often confused with the community policing philosophy that arose in similar times and places in reaction to the crime boom of the 1970s and 1980s. In some respects, they actually point in opposite directions, since the linchpin of community policing is to reclaim crime-prone areas as worthy of positive attention and reconstruction, where police are viewed as allies rather than as part of an army of occupation. More to the immediate point, violent crime rates nationally are at the point where there is no longer any “emergency” rationale for crossing the line that treats citizens as respected equals so long as they are going about their business without providing probable cause of malfeasance. Strolling the wrong sidewalks of New York, and “driving while black,” should no longer be activities that merit a high risk of official hassling.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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