March 18, 2014

Stop and Frisk Through a Sociological Lens

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

If you live in or near New York, no doubt you have heard of a policing policy called “stop and frisk.” For those unfamiliar with the practice, stop and frisk involves police officers questioning and searching pedestrians for weapons if they deem them to be suspicious. This is different from an arrest, and there need not be a crime under investigation to justify a stop and frisk.  Instead, the idea is that this practice could stop a crime before it even happens.

In 2013, a judge ruled that stop and frisk was unconstitutional, as it was mainly used to stop—and many would argue harass—people of color on a daily basis. When Mayor Bill DiBlasio took office in 2014, he vowed that the police would discontinue the practice.

This policy provides us with lessons about racial inequality, as well as the importance of hierarchical organizations and power. It also leaves us with questions about what proactive policing measures might be effective without violating the civil rights of many citizens.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has data on the number of stop and frisks, coded as “250s” by the department. In 2002, just over 97,000 people were “250d” in New York, a number that would increase more than six times a decade later to more than 685,000 250s. The vast majority of these stops yielded no arrest; in 2012 89 percent of those who were stopped were not involved in any illegal activity. Ironically, in the ten year period the NYPD collected data, the lowest number of stops in 2002 yielded the highest percentage of arrests—18 percent of all stopped.

The vast majority of the people who are stopped are black or Latino; last year, 56 percent of those stopped were black and 29 percent were Latino. By contrast, according to the 2012 Census , blacks represent only 18 percent of New York’s population, about the same percentage as Latinos. Whites make up 58 percent of the population but accounted for just 11 percent of the stops in 2013.

What’s it like to be stopped? Take a look at the video below:


As you can see from the video, police officers felt pressure to get their 250 numbers up. As National Public Radio reported in 2013:

Adhyl Polanco, an eight-year police veteran, testified that his supervisors in a Bronx precinct in 2009 insisted on 20 summons, five street stops and one arrest per month. If you didn't make that number, he said, you could be denied days off and overtime, and given a poor evaluation. Polanco said officers who didn't make their quotas were sometimes forced to "drive their supervisors," who would make them give out summons and make street stops, sometimes of people they had not even observed.

Note that quotas are against New York state law, and even if officers didn’t believe in stop and frisk, their jobs depended on them doing so in order to be considered for promotion or avoid sanctions. The policies and practices of the department shape the behavior of the officers, many who join the force in order to help the public, as one officer noted in the video above.

Crime in New York City has declined significantly in the past twenty years; could that be because stop and frisk is working? Preliminary research reported on in 2013 suggests that the results are at best mixed. Keep in mind that finding a correlation is not the same as causation; crime rates have dropped around the nation, including in cities that do not use this policy. One study found that stop and frisk creates a hostile relationship with police, leading residents not to cooperate with police when crimes actually take place, even when they are the victims.

We might also consider how being stopped multiple times might shape behavior. In some circumstances, as in this video  it might make people feel like avoiding public places altogether. If many law abiding residents stay inside for fear of interacting with police, this removes the safety that numbers provide in public spaces. It is also a powerful form of social control.

Sociologist Victor Rios studied young black and Latino men in Oakland, California. Although “stop and frisk” is not a formal stated policy in Oakland, Rios found that the young people he studied were routinely criminalized by police, teachers, school administrators, and other authority figures. The presumption of guilt sometimes led to their defiance, and ultimately a self-fulfilling prophesy. In his book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Rios argues that this “youth control complex” ironically helps create the very thing that aggressive policing is supposed to reduce, as some young people felt they had “nothing to lose” since they were already treated as criminals.


To many citizens concerned about crime, aggressive police tactics sound good, especially if they or their family members are unlikely to face repeated stops. We like the idea of police doing something rather than simply reacting to crime once it happens.

One proactive alternative to measures like “stop and frisk” is a prevention-centered method called problem-oriented policing. Within this method, crime is viewed as a symptom of a larger problem. Police department seek to learn the causes of crime and create multifaceted solutions through continued dialog with community members. (Check out the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing for more information.)

What other alternative methods of policing do you suggest?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Stop and Frisk Through a Sociological Lens:


"Ironically, in the ten year period the NYPD collected data, the lowest number of stops in 2002 yielded the highest percentage of arrests—18 percent of all stopped."

Yes, because since that was the year with the least amount of stops, the criminals were saying "Hmm, I haven't got stopped and frisked in awhile, I'm going to bring my gun out today!".

"The vast majority of these stops yielded no arrest; in 2012 89 percent of those who were stopped were not involved in any illegal activity."

Yes, because the criminals were saying "wow, they've been doing a lot of of stops around here lately, I better keep my gun at home"

These statistics don't prove that the program wasn't working, it actually proves that it was working.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Gentrification in Spike Lee’s Old Neighborhood | Main | The Context of Understanding World Events »