Limiting pedestrian checks might not reduce encounters between police and civilians

Police pedestrian stops in Chicago, indicated by the black line, plummeted in late 2015 (shaded). That coincided with a sharp and lasting increase in traffic stops, shown by the blue line. Traffic stops by the Illinois State Police, the gray line, remained relatively unchanged.

Any encounter between police and civilians can go wrong (SN: 11/17/21). Stop-and-frisk, where police search pedestrians suspected of carrying contraband, can be particularly difficult, leading to some efforts to limit the practice.

But simply limiting foot stops may not reduce the likelihood of such contentious encounters, a Chicago case study suggests. A sharp decline in pedestrian stops in the Windy City eight years ago coincided with a lasting increase in traffic stops, researchers report September 29 in Scientists progress. While the rate of pedestrian stops fell by about 80 percent over five months in 2015, the rate of traffic stops increased by about the same amount in subsequent years.

“This is a really radical change in police activity,” says political scientist Dorothy Kronick of the University of California, Berkeley.

The analysis does not prove that the change in pedestrian checks caused the subsequent increase in traffic stops; nor does it address the implications of the change. Chicago police did not respond to a request for comment.

But the data suggests that studying a single change might not tell the whole story of police tactics, researchers say. “We want to… think about how police departments or other government agencies are going to respond strategically to these changes,” says Kronick, co-author of the study with Berkeley immigration and criminal law expert David Hausman .

Police stop-and-frisk operations peaked in popularity in the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s before declining in the 2010s as the harmful effects of the practice became evident, researchers noted. in January in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice. Officers disproportionately targeted blacks and other minority populations, the practice reduced the well-being of affected residents, and crime did not decrease as much as expected.

Pedestrian stops plummeted in New York City, from about 700,000 stops in 2011 to fewer than 25,000 stops in 2015, a 97 percent decline. In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois released a report showing that the rate of pedestrian stops in Chicago was four times that of New York City before reform. That report prompted Chicago police to demand stricter documentation of pedestrian stops.

“A stop that might have taken two or three minutes now took 20 with the proper documentation,” explained the administrators of Second City Cop, an anonymous blogging site for Chicago police officers, in an email to Scientific news.

The impact of this policy change was stark: As of August 2015, Chicago officers were stopping more than 20 pedestrians per 100 Chicagoans per year, the new study reports. Five months later, that rate had fallen to less than 4 in 100. The proportion of black civilians arrested remained the same, at about 60 to 70 percent.

Meanwhile, traffic stops increased over the next four years. In 2016, Chicago officers stopped about 3 drivers per 100 residents per year. Three years later, they arrested about 22 out of 100, Kronick and Hausman report. The demographics of arrested drivers have changed from 45% Black in 2016 to 60% Black in 2019.

Police beatings, once marked by pedestrian stops, have seen the largest increase in traffic stops, the authors note. They did not observe a similar increase in traffic stops within the Illinois State Police, whose jurisdiction partially overlaps with Chicago police, or among police departments in neighboring suburbs.

The results come as no surprise to criminologist Wesley G. Skogan, who observed the same substitution while researching his 2022 book, Stop & Frisk and the politics of crime in Chicago. “When you work with data, you definitely notice the flow from one to the other,” says Skogan, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “The crucial point of this article is that policing strategies are to some extent fungible, that is, you can move from one to the other.

However, it is difficult to show causes and effects. In the new study, Kronick and Hausman rely on articles and comments on Second City Cop, suggesting that the agents understood that they were expected to make this substitution.

The blog's current administrators agree, noting that the move to traffic stops seemed like a clear change in policy.

For an observational study, the methodology is sound, says criminologist David Weisburd of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. However, it is impossible to rule out all the underlying reasons for this change. For example, were there other changes within the police department that led to this change in priorities? Were residents demanding proactive policies to thwart crime?

And the dramatic increase in traffic stops alone raises questions, Weisburd says. “Why move to traffic stops which pose the same problems for the public and greater safety problems for police officers? »

Evidence of similar substitutions in other cities is rare. But the push for proactive policing to thwart crime suggests this type of change may not be unusual.

“We know through research that proactive policing is really the best way to manage crime and deal with problems in communities,” says criminologist William Sousa of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But the line between problematic stop-and-frisk practices and proactive policing, where police increase surveillance in high-crime neighborhoods to keep residents safe, can be blurry, he says.

And how to prevent racial profiling through proactive policing remains a thorny question. For example, the authors of the new study cite a 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times describing how city police dramatically increased checks on drivers to weed out people carrying guns or drugs. As with antagonistic foot stops, police have disproportionately targeted black civilians, leading one lawyer to characterize the practice as “stop-and-frisk a car.”

The study raises many questions, including about the generalizability of the results, why this change occurred and, most importantly, whether the change reduced problems associated with pedestrian stops, says Hausman . But it shows why examining a single change in policing tactics could leave researchers and policymakers unsure whether the change worked as intended.

“It’s important to take that first step,” Hausman says. “It’s very easy to assume that reducing this particular type of police-civilian interaction will reduce police-civilian interactions overall.”

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