750 words; 3 minutes to read
By Hannah Lee, law student, linkedin.com/in/hannah-jd-candidate
Summary: Random police stops may help reduce crime but also carry high costs to the individuals stopped. Other alternatives appear to be more effective.
Police stops, often referred to as pedestrian stops, have earned great controversy in recent years. With a goal of diminishing crime and violence, the commonly used practice involves the police-initiated stop of a pedestrian for the purpose of investigation or questioning. In 2023, the Campbell Collaboration, a non-profit, international social science research network, summarized the results from 40 studies examining the impact of police stops at the individual and community level. Overall, this analysis suggests that random police stops do more harm than good.
Compared to areas where police stop interventions were used less or not at all, crime was by up to 16% in areas where police stops were more frequent. The benefits do not stop here – more police stops seem to have a crime-mitigating effect on surrounding areas. Importantly, there was no evidence that crime was reduced because individuals moved elsewhere to pursue criminal activity.
Being the target of a police stop can be a confusing, even traumatizing experience. Individuals subjected to police stops experience higher rates of mental health problems compared to those who are not. Mental health problems often include negative life evaluation, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and sometimes suicidal ideation, and even attempted suicide.
Individuals subjected to police stops also experience more physical health problems. These include problems sleeping, and more negative perceptions of their self-reported health.
Attitudes Toward the Police
Another deleterious effect of police stops is an increase in unfavourable attitudes toward the police. This was measured in terms of trust, respect, legitimacy, and satisfaction. Frequent use of police stops creates a dangerous divide between individuals and the police, likely even prompting an individual not to contact police in situations where they are needed.
Those subjected to police stops self-report an increase in criminal activity and a higher probability of future offending. This was measured by surveys or questionnaires where individuals reported more frequent crime or offensive behaviour.
Problems worse for youth
All negative side effects of police stops are exacerbated in youth compared to adults. Not only are the backfire effects more severe for youth, but increased numbers of youth are experience the negative effects due to youth being more frequently targeted for stops by police.
Problems are at an individual-level
The deleterious effects that police stops have on physical and mental health, self-reported crime, and attitudes toward the police are only experienced by the individuals directly subjected to them, not by just anyone living in the community where they occur. This is a circular problem. Black and Indigenous communities are more likely to be confronted by police. If these individuals are disproportionately subjected to police stops, they are also disproportionality subjected to the backfire effects. This may deepen the systemic injustices that already plague the criminal justice system.
Given the negative effects of police stops, are there preferable alternatives? The report suggests two possibilities.
Hot spotting focuses on small geographic areas and places where crime seems to be the most concentrated. This strategy is based on the idea that crime is not evenly spread throughout communities and allows police to better target their resources where crime is the most prevalent. Hot spotting is not defined by the use of a particular intervention, but rather by police focusing efforts in those specific areas.
Problem-oriented policing involves pinpointing and solving the issues that are increasing the risk of crime. The community is often heavily involved in this intervention, both in reporting the problems that are concerning the community, and in developing appropriate solutions. The tactic is premised on the idea that treating the root problem, will in turn reduce crime.
Though more research is needed, two other recent reviews by the Campbell Collaboration (https://doi.org/10.1002/cl2.1046; https://doi.org/10.1002/cl2.1089) show that both hot spotting and problem-oriented policing can achieve the same benefits as police stops, sometimes even more effectively reducing crime, without the backfire effects. It may also be possible that behavioural and officer conduct training could also help mitigate the negative side effects of stops, but there is not much research on this option.
While police stops can effectively reduce crime, there are a host of negative side effects that follow. Individuals, and especially youth, who are subjected to these stops. If improving officer conduct during police stops cannot mitigate the backfire, more desirable alternatives may exist.
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