Princeton University Library Catalog

Watch Where You Walk: An Evaluation of Stop and Frisk in New York City

Tiwari, Alisa [Browse]
Senior thesis
Isenberg, Alison [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year:
139 pages
Summary note:
Stop and frisk, a policing practice in which officers stop, question, and frisk individuals who appear to be involved in a criminal activity, has engendered lively debate in New York City (NYC). Over the past decade, as stop-and-frisk tactics evolved into a key strategy used by the New York Police Department (NYPD), hundreds of thousands of individuals have been stopped by the police each year. Proponents of this strategy assert that the widespread use of stops is essential to the city’s crime prevention program. In response, critics of this practice challenge its role in crime reduction. They also contend that police officers conduct stop-and-frisks without reasonable suspicion and in a racially biased manner, thereby violating the U.S. Constitution. Motivated by the debate, this thesis poses the question: has the widespread use of stop and frisk been an effective, constitutionally sound, and societally constructive policy in NYC? To answer this question, it utilizes an analysis of primary source documents, including an original examination of NYPD statistics and recent newspaper articles; a review of the current literature, such as secondary analyses of statistics and surveys on the policy; and firsthand interviews with researchers, journalists, and law enforcement authorities. By combining these methodological approaches, the current work presents a novel framework for assessing NYC’s stop-and-frisk program. This thesis first evaluates the effectiveness of the policy, a process that involves an examination of crime statistics and current research. The outcome indicates that the widespread use of stop and frisk has a tenuous relationship to declining crime rates, a low impact in the direct prevention of serious crimes, and an unsubstantial role in deterring individuals from committing crimes. In examining lawfulness, this work analyzes stop hit rates, the stop documentation process, statistical studies on racial bias as well as recordings and personal interviews. The results reveal that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program conflicts with the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by encouraging officers to conduct stops without reasonable suspicion and in a racially biased manner. Finally, at the societal level, this thesis examines the social psychological consequences of stops. It finds that stops produce a negative array of emotions for individuals at the focus of the police activity, including humiliation, frustration, and fear. Evidence suggests that the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk has also reduced the legitimacy of the police and perpetuated group-based biases related to criminality, two processes that serve to promote criminal behaviors in the affected individuals. Given little evidence that widespread stop-and-frisks effectively reduce crime, the current mayoral administration should consider reducing the NYPD’s reliance on the police practice, while assessing alternative strategies for crime prevention. It should also work vigorously to reform stop-and-frisk practices that produce constitutional violations, a process that will likely require intense training and auditing efforts. In addition, the administration should address the societal damage that the policy has created throughout the city by rebuilding the legitimacy of the police and diminishing biases related to criminality. Finally, since revising the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program may increase the tactic’s crime prevention benefits, the mayor’s office should employ researchers to assess whether stop and frisk—practiced at a reduced level in a more constitutional and socially constructive manner—serves as a significant strategy for fighting crime.