The Social Cost of Increased Police Stops

December 6th, 2011

From a post titled, Police Stops Go Up, Citizen Complaints Go Down — What Gives?, Michael O’Hear writes about a new report by hte Milwaukee Police Department on crime and traffic stops.

But safety has a cost.

Citizens are being stopped by the police tens of thousands more times now per year than they were in 2007.   The great majority of these stops do not result in an arrest, suggesting that most who suffer the inconvenience and embarassment of a stop are not guilty in any substantial way.  Moreover, because of the racial demographics of the high-crime neighborhoods in which stops are concentrated, African-Americans bear a greatly disproportionate share of the inconvenience and embarrassment relative to their share of the general population.

There is some risk that such racial disparities may prove counterproductive to the goal of enhancing police legitimacy and decreasing crime in the targeted neighborhoods.  (See, for instance, this post, which discusses concerns about the potential impact of racial profiling on police effectiveness.)

Yet, as far as I can tell, there has yet to be any significant backlash against the disparities or the underlying strategic choices.  In conversations and in the local media, I regularly hear complaints about the heavy-handedness of the TSA, but I almost never hear such complaints about the MPD.  Admittedly, I do not live in any of the neighborhoods most affected by the increased-stops strategy.  Yet, even in my relatively low-crime neighborhood, I can remember hearing frequent complaints about MPD racism when I first moved to the city a decade ago.

This brings us to what may be the most surprising aspect of the MPD data: despite the huge increase in the number of coercive police-citizen contacts, the number of citizen complaints is down by more than 44%.

The safety cost of heightened police interactions–that is the cost of providing for safety by infringing on individual liberty through more stops–seems to be minimal, and people don’t seem to mind. O’Hear asks, “What gives?”

The cynical hypothesis would be that the MPD is doing something to discourage or impede complaints.  However, I’m not aware of any evidence of this, and, in fact, I understand that steps have been taken in recent years to facilitate complaint-filing.

Another possbility is better training and supervision of the officers in the street.  As noted above, improving police-community relations has been a major priority of the current MPD leadership, and some of that must be filtering down the ranks, which could result in greater restraint and more respectful treatment during stops.

Better training would be a case where safety increases without affecting liberty.

Still another possibility is that the innocent people targeted for stops are actually willing to accept the inconvenience in view of the benefits of the MPD’s strategy.  As the MPD data demonstrate, African-Americans are disproportionately victimized by crime in the city, and African-Americans are disproportionately identified as suspects.  African-Americans might thus see the increased number of stops in their neighborhoods as a rational and even reassuring response to the high rates of victimization they experience.  In turn, this positive perspective on the strategy might lead to greater tolerance of tactics that might otherwise lead to complaints.

Or the increase in safety is so important that residents do not mind the decrease in individual liberty. Or, their liberty interests are enhanced by the state’s power to provide for security!