Street Stops and Police Legitimacy

New Research by Professor Jeffrey Fagan Finds Public Sense of Fairness and Legality of Stops Impact Cooperation with Law Enforcement

New York, September 18, 2013—Current debates on proactive police policies such as stop-and-frisk focus on the legality and effectiveness of the stops. But a new study co-authored by Columbia Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan suggests that a third criterion may be even more important in making stops effective: public perceptions of whether the police are acting lawfully and respectfully during stops.

The study links police legitimacy to lower levels of criminal behavior and greater cooperation with the police. Although the frequency of police stops and the level of intrusion during those stops are also important factors, police legitimacy is directly shaped by whether the police are viewed as exercising their authority fairly and lawfully, according to the study, “Street Stops and Police Legitimacy: Teachable Moments in Young Urban Men’s Legal Socialization.”  The study’s title references the widely publicized 2009 incident in which an African American Harvard professor was arrested while trying to unlock his own front door, which President Barack Obama later called a “teachable moment.”
Fagan, Tom R. Tyler of Yale Law School, and Amanda Geller of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, examined the attitudes and experiences of a stratified random sample of young men ages 18-26 from 37 neighborhoods in New York City that represent the spectrum of stop activity. The study found that police behavior is a major factor in shaping perceptions of police legitimacy.
“Even legally trivial and inconsequential interactions in which a person is not arrested—the vast majority of all police-citizen encounters in New York—can have a strong influence on people’s views about the legitimacy of the police,” the authors write. “This perspective suggests that we should treat each encounter between the citizens and the police (as well as courts and other legal actors) as a socializing experience—a teachable moment—that builds or undermines legitimacy.”
Young men between the ages of 18 and 26 made up approximately half of the some 4.4 million involuntary police stops that occurred between 2004 and 2012. Only about one in ten stops results in an arrest or citation, and as many as one in five may be legally insufficient, according to the paper. Fagan and his co-authors suggest that tactics like stop-and-frisk “could poison citizen support for and cooperation” with law enforcement, and limit the efforts of police to prevent crime.
Fagan’s previous research on stop-and-frisk was relied on by a New York federal judge who last month ruled the New York stop and frisk policy was unconstitutional. To schedule an interview with Fagan, please call the Law School’s Public Affairs Office at 212-854-2650, or email him directly.
The Law School also has a studio on campus equipped with an ISDN line and IFB capability for radio and television interviews Monday through Friday. Please contact the Public Affairs Office for bookings: 212-854-2650 or [email protected].