Policing, Profiling, and Crime

Ron Berger and Marvin Free —

In the current presidential campaign, Donald Trump has positioned himself as the “law and order” candidate and an advocate of aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policing practices in some urban communities. This policy, which is praised by some as vital to police effectiveness and criticized by others as racially discriminatory, remains controversial. Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of criminological research that sheds light on this issue.

stop-and-friskStop-and-frisk tactics, also known as “stop, question, and frisk,” have long been a staple of policing, but the controlling U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding its constitutionality is the Terry v. Ohio case of 1968, which granted officers the right to stop and detain a person when there was “reasonable suspicion” that he or she was in the act of or about to commit a crime. A constitutional problem occurs, however, when police use race or ethnicity as the criteria for the assumption of reasonable suspicion. This practice, commonly referred to as “racial profiling,” has its roots in the more general practice of criminal profiling, whereby officers use demographic traits of known offenders to identity potential offenders. Individuals who possess these traits then come under closer scrutiny because police believe they fit the profile of someone who might commit a crime.

The 1992 case of Robert Wilkins, a black attorney from Maryland, was significant in bringing the issue of racial profiling to the forefront of public attention. Wilkins was returning home from a family funeral in Chicago with his aunt, uncle, and cousin Norman El-Amin. El-Amin was at the wheel of their rented Cadillac when they were stopped by a state trooper for speeding on Interstate 68 in Maryland. After El-Amin, with Wilkins’s encouragement, refused the officer’s request to search the car for contraband, the trooper called for a drug-sniffing police dog. Wilkins and his relatives were forced to stand on the side of the road in the rain while the dog searched for the nonexistent drugs. After no drugs were found, El-Amin was issued a $105 traffic ticket for speeding.

With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, Wilkins and his family sued the state of Maryland and received a $95,600 settlement (which included legal costs). As part of the settlement, the Maryland State Police (MSP) agreed to conduct a comprehensive investigation of driver stops on Interstates 68 and 95. The completed study disclosed that black motorists were, in fact, disproportionately singled out for police stops and searches. More than 70 percent of the drivers stopped and searched by the MSP were black, even though black drivers comprised just 17 percent of the motorists in the state, and even though they were no more likely than whites to have violated a traffic law or have illegal substances found in their vehicles.

In addition to Maryland, subsequent studies documented the prevalence of racial profiling in Florida and New Jersey. In a study of traffic stops on Interstate 95 in Florida, about 70 percent of those stopped were black or Latino, even though nonwhites comprised only 5 percent of motorists. In a study of stops on the New Jersey Turnpike, black drivers accounted for 35 percent of the stops, even though they comprised just 14 percent of all drivers and 15 percent of those who were speeding; and black and Latino drivers accounted for about 80 percent of all vehicles that were searched. And a study of traffic stops in Kansas City, Missouri, found that while race did not play a role in “safety stops” related to clear violations of traffic laws, it was the primary factor in “investigatory stops” related to inquiries into non-traffic crimes. Black drivers were almost three times more likely than their white counterparts to be singled out for investigatory stops and five times more likely to have their vehicles searched.

Nor is racial profiling confined to drivers. An investigation of stop-and-frisk practices in New York City found that more than half of the pedestrians stopped by the police were black, a rate that is double the proportion of the city’s population that is black. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of the pedestrians stopped by the special Street Crime Unit of the New York Police Department (NYPD) were black. And in precincts where blacks and Latinos each constituted less than a tenth of the population, they were stopped 30 percent and 23 percent of the time, respectively.

The controversial NYPD practices were highlighted in a 2013 federal court ruling that declared that the “city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner.” Reaching its peak in 2011 during the final years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, police stops of pedestrians increased to 684,330, 87 percent of whom were black or Latino. Although 10 percent of these stops resulted in arrest, the court found that nearly 30 percent occurred without any reasonable suspicion, hence violating the criteria established under Terry v. Ohio.

To be sure, some research finds that stop-and-frisk can have a moderate effect on reducing crime when it is applied in crime “hot spots,” that is, areas that are known for high rates of crime. Research by David Weisburd and colleagues found, for example, that stop-and-frisk reduced crime in New York City by two percent. They argue, however, that “it is not clear whether other policing strategies may have similar or even stronger crime-control outcomes,” and they’re concerned that the level of stop-and-frisk that is “needed to produce meaningful crime reductions” may be too costly both in terms of the use of police time and the erosion of public trust and confidence in the police. Robert Abel adds that one possible mechanism by which stop-and-frisk works is by discouraging nonoffenders from being out on the streets because of their desire to avoid police harassment, hence reducing potential targets of crime.

Another issue involved in evaluating the efficacy of stop-and-frisk entails what criminologists refer to as the “hit rate,” that is, the rate at which a stop leads to the discovery of a crime. According to David Harris, “All the studies…[that] allow for the calculation of hit rates…show higher hit rates not for blacks and Latinos, but for whites. In other words, officers ‘hit’ less often when they use race or ethnic appearance to decide which persons seem suspicious enough to merit stops and searches than they do when they use suspicious behavior and not race as their way of selecting suspects.”

Politics, of course, is rarely the place to evaluate the nuances of scientific research. If Donald Trump were to cherry-pick the research I have reviewed, he would likely ignore the large body of evidence indicating racial bias and focus instead on the two percent crime-reduction that can be attributed to New York City’s implementation of aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics. Even here, he would likely gloss over the rather modest impact, which applies only to crime “hot spots,” and ignore the deleterious influence on the public’s perception of the police, particularly the perception of nonoffenders who are ensnared in its overreach. It also distracts us from searching for alternative ways to reduce crime that are more consistent with the values of a democratic society.

Most criminologists agree that stop-and-frisk, when applied in a nondiscriminatory and constitutionally permissible manner consistent with Terry v. Ohio, has its place in a democratic society. But politicians who exploit this issue to muster votes take us down a path we need not go. It is not too late to turn back from this precipice.


Robert Abel. 2016. “On the Deterrent Effect of Stop, Question, and Frisk.” Criminology & Public Policy 15, pp. 57-66.

Ronald J. Berger, Marvin D. Free, Melissa Deller & Patrick K. O’Brien. 2015. Crime, Justice, and Society: An Introduction to Criminology, 4th ed. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

David A. Harris. 2003. “The Reality of Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice: The Significance of Data Collection.” Law & Contemporary Problems 66, pp. 71-98.

David Weisburd, Alese Wooditch, Sarit Weisburd & Sue-Ming Yang. 2016. “Do Stop, Question, and Frisk Practices Deter Crime? Evidence at Microunits of Space and Time.” Criminology & Public Policy 15, pp. 31-56.


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