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Impacts of Discriminatory Policing in NYC

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Serious cases of abuse of police authority often stimulate intense public debate

For example, a videotape of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers or reports of the torture of Abner Louima by New York City police capture the public’s attention and raise troubling questions regarding the limits of legitimate police authority in a democratic society. Are such events isolated occurrences in particular police departments or extreme examples of a more general problem plaguing police departments across the United States? Does the fact that such abuses often involve minority victims reveal important disparities in the way that law enforcement officers treat members of certain racial, socioeconomic, or cultural groups?

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In the late 1990s, popular, legal, and political concerns were raised across the United States about police harassment of minority groups in their everyday encounters with law enforcement. These concerns focused on the extent to which police were stopping people on the highways for “driving while black”. The legal standard for police conduct in citizen stops derives from Terry v. Ohio, which involved a pedestrian stop that set the parameters of the “reasonable suspicion” standard for police conduct in detaining citizens for search or arrest. Recently, the courts have expanded the concept of “reasonable suspicion” to include location as well as behavior. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Illinois v. Wardlow, noted that although a person’s presence in a “high-crime area” does not meet the standard for a particularized suspicion of criminal activity, a location’s characteristics are relevant to determining whether a behavior is sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation. Because “high-crime areas” often have high concentrations of minority citizens this logic places minority neighborhoods at risk for elevating the suspiciousness of their residents. Early studies suggested that both the racial characteristics of the suspect and the racial composition of the suspect’s neighborhood influence police decisions to stop, search, or arrest a suspect

Particularly in urban areas, suspect race interacts with neighborhood characteristics to animate the formation of suspicion among police officers Police are more likely to view a minority citizen as suspicious—leading to a police stop—based on nonbehavioral cues, while more often relying on behavioral cues to develop suspicion for white citizens. Whether racially disparate stop rates reflect disproportionate crime rates or intentional, racially biased targeting by police of minorities at rates beyond what any racial differences in crime rates might justify lies at the heart of the social and legal controversy on racial profiling and racial discrimination by police.

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The high rates at which non-Whites are stopped, questioned, cited, arrested, or injured by the police present some of the most salient criminal justice policy phenomena in the United States (Kochel, Wilson, and Mastrofski, 2011; Lytle, 2014). Because these kinds of police contact are associated with at least some forms of what is known as proactive policing, recognition of this reality is an important starting point for this chapter. Additionally, because many proactive policing strategies by design increase the volume of interactions between police and the public, such strategies may increase the overall opportunity for problematic interactions that have disparate impacts. Concerns about the interaction between race and policing are not new. For example, researchers have been studying differential stop and arrest rates across demographic groups—and more generally, racial disparities in criminal justice involvement, offending, and the likelihood of becoming a crime victim—for several decades (see, e.g., Sampson and Lauritsen, 1997; Tonry, 1995). Nonetheless, several recent high-profile incidents of police shootings and other police–citizen interactions caught on camera and viewed widely have made questions regarding basic fairness, racial discrimination, and the excessive use of force of all forms against non-Whites in the United States a pressing national issue. In considering these incidents, it is important to note that the origins of policing in the United States are intimately interwoven with the country’s history of discrimination against non-White people, particularly toward Black people

Although some of the more egregious historical practices ended a long time ago, others ended later and within the living memory of many Americans—and all are remembered as part of the collective history shared by Black and other non-White communities. From this perspective, it is easy to see how the nation’s history is intrinsically linked to misgivings some non-White Americans continue to have about possible police animus and racial bias. And it is by no means clear that explicit animus-driven biases against non-Whites, or examples of racial animus by the police, are a thing of the past.

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As has been noted, these disparities undermine the legitimacy of law enforcement and create a two-tiered policing system; moreover, they compromise public safety. If residents do not trust the police, they are less likely to report crimes and cooperate with police investigations. So despite what Trump says, stop-and-frisk remains as bad a policy as ever. Police should be looking to address these disparities, not implementing a policy that exacerbates them.

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Kochel, T. R., Wilson, D. B., and Mastrofski, S. D. (2011). The effect of suspect race on police officers’ arrest decisions. Criminology, 49(2), 473–512.

Lytle, D. J. (2014). The effects of suspect characteristics: A meta-analysis. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(6), 589–597.

Sampson, R. J. (2002). Transcending tradition: New directions in community research, Chicago style. Criminology, 40(2), 213–230.

Tonry, M. (1995). Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tremblay, M., Cloutier, J., Simard, G., Chenevert, D., and Vandenberghe, C. (2010). The role of HRM practices, procedural justice, organizational support and trust in organization commitment and in-role and extra-role performance. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 21(3), 405–433.

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