Excerpted from: Rory Kramer and Brianna Remster, Stop, Frisk, and Assault? Racial Disparities in Police Use of Force During Investigatory Stops , 52 Law and Society Review 960 (December 2018) (References) (11 Footnotes) (Full Document)
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 potential 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 number of stops annually, inequalities in police use of force persist.
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. 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 especially 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 during 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 protests 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 jurisdictions ranging in size, demographics, and region. Although cities 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).
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First, we estimate the likelihood of stops involving any police use of force as well as potential lethal force across our entire sample population using logistic regression with robust standard errors to adjust for clustering by precinct. The results, which appear in Table 2, show that black civilians have 27 percent higher odds of experiencing force during a stop than white civilians and 28 percent higher odds of officers drawing their guns (OR = 1.27 and 1.28, respectively). Importantly, these findings are net of alternative explanations including civilian behavior, the success of the stop, local crime rates, and neighborhood context. This supports hypothesis 1 that black individuals are more likely to experience force, including potential lethal force, at the hands of police than white individuals.
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One hundred years ago, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protests against lynching, police misconduct, and legalized violence against Black Americans demanded social change. In the 1960s, rumors of police misconduct were behind many of the riots and rebellions in cities across the country. Most recently, the deaths of black citizens during encounters with police returned police brutality and racial inequality to national attention and the growth of the BLM movement.
However, as a part of the criminal justice system, policing has not been the focus of social science research as much as the study of inequality via mass incarceration (Wakefield and Uggen 2010). Yet, policing inequalities are at the root of legal cynicism that helps perpetuate a cycle of violence and distrust of government in communities (Carr et al. 2007; Desmond et al. 2016; Tyler et al. 2014). For example, after Chicago police shot and killed her son and neighbor, Janet Cooksey was not only angry at the police, but also at her son's father because she thought he should have called her instead of 911. In her words, “[police] are supposed to serve and protect us and yet they take the lives” (Coates 2015). Similarly, Betty Jones' (the neighbor who was shot) brother already doubted any official investigation's legitimacy, saying “we all know how that will turn out.” Strikingly, he made this statement just days before a grand jury decided not to indict Cleveland police officers for Tamir Rice's death on the recommendation of the county prosecutor.
To date, however, there have been few systematic analyses of whether or not there is racial inequality in police use of force today. Moreover, no research exists to our knowledge on how the productivity of a police stop, or age, is associated with the racial disparity in police use of force. Using NYPD's UF-250 forms, precinct, and census data, we find that BLM claims are largely borne out by the data, even after controlling for the outcome of the stop, other civilian behavior, and neighborhood and precinct context. Specifically, police treat black individuals more harshly than whites (hypothesis 1). Additionally, the racial disparity in police drawing their weapons is higher for stops that resulted in arrest and/or seizure of contraband or weapons, suggesting that police perceive black individuals engaging in criminal behavior as more threatening than white individuals in similar circumstances (hypothesis 2). Yet this is limited to potential lethal force; whether a stop was productive or not had no effect on the racial disparity in police use of force more broadly. Furthermore, the racial disparity in gun use during productive stops was greatest for black youth and young adults--when young black civilians are found in violation of the law during stops, they are more likely to experience potentially lethal force than young white civilians as well as older Black and White civilians (hypothesis 3). There were no age inequities by race among stops that did not include or uncover any illicit behavior.
In sum, black individuals are not only more likely to be stopped by police, they are also more likely to be subjected to police use of force during that interaction, and more likely to be seen as threatening to officers, resulting in a greater rate of police drawing their weapons. This finding is notable for its consistency across our models: black civilians who were found to be engaging in criminal behavior were more likely to be subjected to force, as were black civilians who were not engaging in such behavior. That was true across all age groups and true before and after organizational reform (the only exception is potential lethal force post reform, although that is driven by a small sample of whites who experienced that form of violence after 2013). Those findings are not only in the same direction, but also the magnitude of the racial disparity is consistent (with the exception that black youth who were arrested or found with contraband were more likely to experience potential lethal force).
Although the marginal effects appear small in magnitude, across the more than 1.5 million stops of black civilians during the 8 years' time period, these racial disparities resulted in approximately 61,000 more cases of police force against black civilians and 1,800 more cases of police drawing their weapons against black civilians than would have occurred if black civilians were treated identically to whites. Those numbers are greater than the total number of whites who were subjected to force or weapons being drawn on them in our sample.
Concerning inequalities more broadly, our findings indicate that police perceptions of race are a powerful form of inequality in police violence, over and above age. Although the youthfulness of black civilians subjected to police violence has been highlighted by the media and BLM advocates, our analyses show that age is only a factor in the likelihood of experiencing potential lethal force and even then, race continues to trump age. That is, police treat consistently treat civilians differently by skin tone more so than age.
Our findings not only show the potential benefits but also the limitations of organizational reform efforts to reduce racial disparities. Unfortunately, reforms to the regularity of stop-and-frisk and training did not significantly reduce the racial disparity in the likelihood of experiencing police violence as hypothesis 4 had predicted, nor inequities in age. This is consistent with research arguing that in-depth training on racial bias is necessary to reduce disparities, which studies have shown reduces police implicit bias (Correll et al. 2002, 2007; Greenwald and Krieger 2006; Plant and Peruche 2005). Yet our findings also reveal that reforms have been beneficial; when the NYPD reduced the use of stop-and-frisk and instituted changes in training, approximately 57,000 fewer stops, the majority of which targeted black people, included force by police annually.
This study moves our understanding of inequalities in criminal justice forward, but our results do come with limitations. First, our data come from NYC, a global city with a highly visible and aggressive stop-and-frisk policy. However, other research using multicity samples found similar patterns, indicating that our findings are not exceptions to the general pattern of police use of force (Goff et al. 2016). Additionally, so as to have a proper comparison group of otherwise similar interactions, these results are only of investigative stops and not, for example, exhaustive of the types of death that sparked the contemporary social movement, specifically when police are called to a scene (e.g., Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald) or as part of a traffic stop (e.g., Walter Scott and Philandro Castile). Nonetheless, the results do show racial inequity in how police respond to reasonable suspicion and provide evidence that a person's race, age, and behavior are associated with differential risks of police violence. These findings are in line with laboratory research that young black civilians are seen as physically larger and more threatening (Wilson et al. 2017).
At the same time, our analyses cannot determine the time ordering of civilian behavior and police use of force, such as whether the arrest or seizures are what lead to heightened sense of risk by police or are instead post hoc justifications for force. Thus, examining the timing of police use of force and civilian behavior is a fruitful avenue for future research. Additionally, while we focused on race and age in this article, our results suggest that gender is also key to understanding police-civilian dynamics. Thus, future research should explore on how police perceptions of gender affect this racialized disparity, especially in light of the Say Her Name movement. Finally, although we adjust for a wide variety of competing explanations and relevant factors, our methods cannot prove discriminatory practices by the NYPD (for quasi-experimental evidence of discriminatory patterns by NYPD, see Legewie 2016). This is another important direction for future research.
In addition to testing racial disparities in policing using other methods and data that could more directly test for bias, future research should explore the consequences of experiencing police violence. Across the country, police killed roughly 1,000 people in 2015, sparking nationwide protests and costing cities millions in settlements (Elinson and Frosch 2015; Kindy et al. 2015). None-theless, the greatest result of police violence may be an unwillingness to see or treat the police as agents of justice and safety but instead as potential threats to one's health and well-being (Desmond et al. 2016; Tyler et al. 2014). Importantly, our analyses indicate that ending stop-and-frisk lowered the rate of police interactions, but not necessarily the racial inequality in the use of force during those police interactions. Future research should explore how to reduce the disparities in experiencing police violence that exist above and beyond the disparities in being stopped.
Perhaps not surprisingly, recent Pew surveys show a large racial gap in trust in the police and hope for future improvement in police-community relations (Drake 2015). BLM articulates specific reasons for that gap in police trust around police violence against black people, specifically teens. Research indicates that the experience of a police interaction is critical to understanding civilian satisfaction with police (Skogan 2005; Weitzer and Tuch 2005) but had not measured how unequal those police interactions are. That experience is racially unequal even when adjusting for the outcomes of a stop; contact with police is fundamentally different for Black and White residents. That difference in initial contact may be an under-appreciated source of inequality in criminal justice outcomes and subsequent inequalities, including mental health, employment, and education (Geller et al. 2014; Harknett 2015). Although the majority of police interactions for individuals of all races do not involve violence, the perception that police violence disproportionately targets black civilians has greatly harmed police-community relations. Unfortunately, that perception is reality.
Rory Kramer is an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University.
Brianna Remster is an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University.