Police Stops of Black, Hispanic Youth Linked to Later Delinquent Behavior

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When police stop, question and frisk African-American and Latinx teens, they are more likely to later run afoul of the law, according to a study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, a multidisciplinary scientific journal.

A coalition of applied researchers specializing in psychology, criminology, health, and social work sifted through self-reported surveys given four separate times between 2013-15 to 645 underclassman boys from six public high schools in heavily policed neighborhoods of a major southern city.

While citing studies showing stop-and-frisk tactics overwhelmingly target black and Latino men, and by extension black and Latinx teens, the researchers noted that they “found no variation by race, suggesting that the process by which police contact predicts increased subsequent delinquent behavior operated similarly for black, Latino, and ‘other nonwhite’ boys.”

The implication is that while police stops generally affect teens fairly equally, regardless of race or ethnicity, African-American and Latinx teens disproportionately experience the stops.

Over 40 percent of the surveyed teens were frisked at least once over the span of the experiment. Three-quarters of that number were stopped during their freshman, rather than sophomore, year.

Those who reported “little or no” delinquent behavior at the first survey were just as likely as those reporting more delinquency to run into police stops during the study. Thus, prior “good behavior” offered no generally observable protection from aggressive police stops.

The younger the teen at first contact with the police, the stronger the likelihood of later delinquency, their findings also highlight.

And while only one stop had a statistically significant but “small effect” on delinquency over the next 18 months, multiple stops of the same teen produced a “moderate” effect on delinquency.

In other words, this evidence is enough to fairly conclude that there is likely a non-random relationship between police stops and later delinquency. In statistics, more extreme findings tend to indicate glaring problems with how the data was collected or analyzed.

The researchers added:

These findings advance the scientific understanding of crime and adolescent development while also raising policy questions about the efficacy of routine police stops of black and Latino youth. Police stops predict [declines in teens’] psychological well-being and may unintentionally increase their engagement in criminal behavior.

In the future, researchers could improve upon their model by comparing data from youth in heavily-policed neighborhoods with that from lightly-policed areas. In this study, the city itself chose the high schools that would cooperate with the researchers, based on information from the police department on the most heavily-policed areas of the city.

The researchers also noted that their research tended to overweight the experiences of youth with fewer police stops, given that youth with multiple and continued stops over the two-year period tended to have more difficulty participating in more than one of the four surveys.

[B]ecause of the higher attrition rates exhibited among the boys at highest risk of being stopped, the […] boys whose experiences are captured in these analyses likely represent an underestimate of the number of participants in the broader study who may have experienced high numbers of stops.

Because the high-contact subsample that remained in our study may not be representative of the broader high-contact population, we encourage future research to target this particularly vulnerable population.

Lastly, future researchers could compare self-reported data with administrative data to correct for the natural biases of asking people to report on their own bad behavior. Of course, administrative data has its own limitations, as it would not reflect incidents of delinquency that were not observed by administrators.

Thus, the comparison of both might build a more accurate composite.

While other researchers have yet to replicate their work, the authors’ research design and data analysis nonetheless indicate that the article is a thoughtful, promising springboard and model for future research on the topic.

Just as important as their headline-friendly findings, though, are the links they did not discover.

They not only found that police contact was linked to youth delinquency down the road. They did not find, inversely, that delinquency resulted in later police stops.

This timeline relationship between police stops and delinquency is the gaping difference between the claims that ‘frisks lead to misbehavior’ and ‘misbehavior leads to frisks.’

In the context of this research, a ‘stop’ refers to two separate types of police encounters: times when a school resource officer or other police figure demanded to speak with a given teen, and times when the figure frisked, or forcibly searched, the youth during that interaction. The researchers took a special interest in interactions youth perceived as “physically invasive or abusive.”

Of course, police stops and later delinquency don’t happen in a vacuum. The researchers are arguing that the stops are pivotal moments in teens’ psychological development, as they are associated with later feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, and distrust of authority.

Youth who are stopped by the police, often through no fault of their own, tend to be stigmatized as deviant hooligans and cut off from social networks and connections that could otherwise steer them away from misbehavior, the researchers argue. Youth can carry these labels into all their interactions with social spaces and institutions, from home to school to community to the justice system.

In this way, youth can be dragged into a vicious downward vortex where they are misunderstood and largely cut off from wholesome support systems. The negative emotions emerging from this psychological isolation can lead youth to further lash out through deviance, according to longstanding theory in criminology cited by the researchers. In this way, the kids who most need support staying on track often perversely get the least.

Thus, the researchers argue that police stops are linked to later delinquency, which can be explained through the lens of multiple theories about teens’ developmental psychology.

Their striking work is another chapter in the spotty and often contradictory anthology of research on ‘proactive policing,’ the prevailing strategy in departments across the country that focuses police efforts on people, places, communities, and situations rather than only reacting to calls for service.

While their results fit into the broader canon of ‘proactive policing’ research, they are certainly groundbreaking—to date, research on the relationship between heavy-handed policing, such as stop-and-frisk, and subsequent crime has been weak. As it relates to youth, quantitative analysis on the subject has been nonexistent.

With the release of this study, policymakers, academics and community advocates have a starting point for future probes.

The study is available here.

Roman Gressier is a TCR contributor and news intern.

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