Police Stops

A number of police officers throughout the country have used excessive and sometimes deadly force in instances that were absolutely unjustified, including some egregious cases in Chicago, the city I know best. Many of these would not have been known about or dealt with properly had it not been for police and citizen cameras. These situations have led to far-reaching changes in police policies regarding the use of deadly force.

Along with these changes, there has been a charge that police departments in many cities over-police minority communities. This charge is accompanied by statistics that show that more police stops occur in minority communities than other, whiter communities; that is, if we divide the number of stops by the number of residents, it is higher for minority communities than for white communities.

But the racial composition is only one variable that can describe a community; there are others. Consider the fact that, in most cities, the areas with the greatest crime rates are populated with minorities. In Chicago there are two high-crime areas: the rest of the city is relatively safe. These two areas are characterized by a high rate of calls for police service, high crime rates and (non-police) shooting and homicide rates, high poverty, high truancy rates, etc. These areas have proportionately the highest number of police stops and are generally more dangerous, both for police and for the overwhelming majority of the citizens in those areas that do not commit crime.

The police did not create those problems in these communities. They were generated by decades of policies both active (redlining and other discriminatory strategies) and passive (neglect by municipal agencies), by decisions made well above the police officers’ pay grade. That some police officers are prejudiced is hardly unexpected, since they grew up under these policies.

But looking only at a community’s racial composition to infer police bias truly obscures the picture. We should compile community-level statistics with different denominators: police stops per number of violent crimes, per number of gunfire incidents, per number of confiscated weapons. That is, to understand the behavior of police, focus on what usually does, and should, drive their behavior.

No one can or should condone the use of excessive (and lethal) force by the police, in these or other communities; however, the focus on more policing of these communities is probably as it should be. Residents of those communities are the ones who are victimized the most, and the over 95 percent of them who are not criminals deserve protection.


As Keith Humphreys pointed out in the comments below, the police are more present in high-crime, low-income communities, but in Chicago, where they have been criticized by the ACLU and DOJ, they seem to have gone fetal, with much less proactive policing. One of the consequence of that stance is doubtless the increase in homicides, which included seven persons killed last Wednesday. And here’s another consequence: http://www.copinthehood.com/2016/10/chicago-cop-murders-unarmed-man.html

Author: Mike Maltz

Michael D. Maltz is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice and of Information and Decision Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently an adjunct professor of sociology at the Ohio State University His formal training is in electrical engineering (BEE, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1959; MS & PhD Stanford University, 1961, 1963), and he spent seven years in that field. He then joined the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (now National Institute of Justice), where he became a criminologist of sorts. After three years with NIJ, he spent thirty years at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during which time he was a part-time Visiting Fellow at the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Maltz is the author of Recidivism, coauthor of Mapping Crime in Its Community Setting, and coeditor of Envisioning Criminology.

12 thoughts on “Police Stops”

  1. "The police did not create those problems in these communities."

    Certainly not in the sense that they sat around in a smoke-filled room with malice aforethought. But they participated over the decades with policies that exacerbated problems instead of helping solve them.

  2. Mike — IIRC, the University of Cincinatti crime research group showed that police pretty much go where they are called, i.e., the neighborhoods where they spend the most time are the same ones in which people ask for their assistance. This implies that it would be an act of cruely to patrol evenly throughout a city, as doing this could only accomplished by ignoring most calls from low-income neighborhoods.

  3. Great post. The same sort of reasoning is found in education with regards to discipline and racial disparities, as if there aren't any other factors at work (actually the same you mention in policing). It is such a simple thing to understand, yet the fact that our "conversation" routinely misses the point speaks to a larger deficit in how we think about race in America.

    Of course, there are definitely disparities in how minorities are treated by police, as well as teachers, but looking at simple ratios is superficial and misguided. I would argue it actually undermines the discussion because people without a certain sensitivity to minority mistreatment will easily see this argument as phony and be less likely to appreciate the nuance. The real disparities will be overlooked.

  4. This is obviously true, but to throw some anecdotage into the pot, I have found that my relatively infrequent encounters with the police tend to be more pleasant in the winter, when I am rather pale, than in the summer, when, after plenty of sun, my swarthy Mediterranean good looks cause people to think I am Hispanic.

  5. I don't know, but I suspect the residents of those two high crime neighborhoods are some of the most supportive of a police presence. That's not to say that they probably aren't nervous about such a presence, but merely that they would rather have it than not.

    1. They are both more in need and aware of it, and simultaneously terrified. Not nervous, but afraid for their lives. (edited for clarity)

  6. Hasn't somebody run the numbers to correct for the socio-economic disparities? That would be routine in medical research. The frequency with which professional-class Afro-Americans get stopped by police while driving posh cars suggests that when you do control for all the other factors, there is still a residual that can only be explained by institutional or individual prejudice.

    How about a movement to draft Sir Robert Peel as Chicago Police Commissioner? He's been dead for 117 years, but in Chicago that should not be an insurmountable problem. Here he is in a fetching Roman toga.

    1. James, when a police officer stops a car, it's easy to see if the driver is African-American, but there's no way they can determine the person's class.

      1. You make my point. On one branch, the officer judges class by the car and stops anyway, thinking "pimp" or "drug dealer". On the other, the cop has no information about class and stops the car because the driver is black.

        1. I would guess that most stops are made from behind, where the nature of the driver is unknown. And I thought that your point was, why can't we do what is done in medical research, correct for socio-economic disparities, and my response was that the data is not available in police stops.

          1. An article here refers to a book-length study by Charles Epp of Kansas U on police stops, which I’ve not read but clearly documents large-scale bias in the practice. Cops are observant. The standard situation is surely that the cop car is parked or cruising slowly, and is passed by the car the officers decide to chase and stop.

          2. I'm well aware of that type of bias. In 2000 I was an expert witness in a case involving the stopping of Latino drivers and subjecting them to DUI tests. The case was ultimately settled in favor if the plaintiff Latinos; my part was investigate the statistical analysis completed by the defendant city’s expert; I showed that it was imperfectly done and used faulty data.

            As an aside (not part of my report), I noted that most of the stops were made on roads between where the Latinos lived and where the bars they most frequently patronized were located. I also noted, however, that none of the stops were made near the Knights of Columbus or Elks lodges, where the “good folk” bent their elbows. In other words, there was a bit of “cherry-picking” going on, because there would be a lot less flak if the police confined themselves to people at the lower end of the social totem pole.

            It may be that your consideration of police on patrol is on highways, while mine is in cities, rushing from one call for service to another.

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