After the Stop: Exploring the Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Police Use of Force During Terry Stops

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
After the Stop:
Exploring the Racial/
Ethnic Disparities in
Police Use of Force
During Terry Stops
Weston J. Morrow
Michael D. White
, and
Henry F. Fradella
Questions surrounding stop, question, and frisk (SQF) practices have focused almost
exclusively on racial and ethnic disproportionality in the rate of stops, and whether
police are engaged in racial profiling. This near-sole focus on the stop decision has
overshadowed important questions about the use of force during Terry stops, result-
ing in a major gap in our understanding of the dynamics of SQF encounters. The
current study addresses this issue through an examination of the nature, prevalence,
and predictors of use of force during Terry stops using the 2012 SQF database of New
York Police Department (NYPD; N¼519,948) and data from the U.S. Census
Bureau. Results indicate that use of force was an infrequent event in NYPD stops
(14%), and weapon force was quite rare (.01%). However, hierarchical multinomial
logistic regression models show that Black and Hispanic citizens were significantly
more likely to experience non-weapon force than White citizens, while controlling
for other relevant situational and precinct-level variables. The findings suggest that
minority citizens may be exposed to a racial or ethnic ‘‘double jeopardy,’’ whereby
they are subjected to both unconstitutional stops and disparate rates of force during
those stops. The study highlights the importance of expanding the focus on SQF
beyond the racial profiling lens, as questions about the dynamics of police use of force
decision-making raise equally important social and legal concerns.
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, Reno, NV, USA
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Weston J. Morrow, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, 1664 N. Virginia Street,
Reno, NV 89557-0214, USA.
Police Quarterly
2017, Vol. 20(4) 367–396
!The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611117708791
police use of force, stop and frisk, NYPD, race, ethnicity
Under common law, English constables and ‘‘watchmen’’ were permitted to
detain ‘‘night-walkers’’—suspicious people encountered at night (Ronayne,
1964, p. 214). As with much of the common law tradition, this authority was
imported to the United States. But it took until 1968 before the U.S. Supreme
Court issued three landmark rulings that set federal constitutional benchmarks
for stop-and-frisk within the framework of the Fourth Amendment: Terry v.
Ohio and the companion cases of Sibron v. New York, and Peters v. New York.
Collectively, these rulings af‌forded police the discretion to stop citizens based on
reasonable suspicion. These cases also made clear that law enforcement of‌f‌icers
may superf‌icially ‘‘pat down’’ a suspect if there is reasonable suspicion to believe
the suspect is armed. Although Terry and its progeny clearly sanctioned stop-
and-frisk as a policing tactic, over the past 20 years, stop-and-frisk morphed into
an aggressive crime-control strategy quite dif‌ferent from the tactic outlined in
Terry (Fradella & White, 2017). This move from an individualized investigative
tactic—based on particularized, reasonable suspicion—to a broader ‘‘Stop,
Question, and Frisk’’ (SQF) crime control strategy is most commonly associated
with of policing activities in New York City,
but large-scale SQF programs
emerged as a popular crime control strategy among law enforcement agencies
across the United States. At the same time, the strategy has caused consider-
able controversy, as researchers and legal scholars have demonstrated a sig-
nif‌icant disconnect between stop-and-frisk as an investigative tactic and SQF
as a broad crime control strategy (Fradella & White, 2017; White & Fradella,
2016). The former, sanctioned by Terry, is grounded in a historical and legal
tradition dating back hundreds of years; the latter is constitutionally question-
able, at best. Indeed, the experiences of a number of police departments over
the last decade or so tell a story—one characterized by overuse and misuse of
SQF; violations of citizens’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights;
strained police–community relationships; low or no police legitimacy; and sig-
nif‌icant emotional, psychological, and physical consequences experienced by
mostly minority citizens (Fratello, Rengifo, & Trone, 2013; Ofer &
Rosmarin, 2014).
The harm created by abusive SQF practices in these jurisdictions has led to
scrutiny of the strategy by advocacy groups, media, the courts, and the U.S.
Department of Justice. In New York, for example, controversy over the SQF
program of New York Police Department (NYPD) led to more than a decade
of litigation in the federal courts, culminating in an August 2013 ruling that
368 Police Quarterly 20(4)

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