Matthew Pate — Stopping to interrogate police culture


Much has been said about the New York Police Department’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy. Without belaboring the legal provenance from Terry v. Ohio through the present, it is a generally accepted practice in modern policing that officers may briefly detain and pat down a person upon developing a “reasonable suspicion” the individual has or is about to commit a crime.

While the headlines concern vast racial disparities in terms of who is stopped and frisked, this practice begs a much more fundamental question.

In their analysis, Delores Jones-Brown, Jaspreet Gill and Jennifer Trone, writing from the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College observe an evocative trend. When these researchers reviewed NYPD officers’ UF-250 forms (completed after each stop and frisk), they found that “furtive movements” was the most frequently reason listed for initiating contact.

The authors report, “Among the 540,320 stops that officers documented in 2008, ‘furtive movements’ was at least one of the reasons checked on the UF-250 in almost half, or 246,186, of the stops. (Officers must check at least one reason for stopping someone but may check more than one.) This represents a 25 percent increase over the 196,200 people stopped for ‘furtive movements’ in 2007.”

From this finding we can conclude one of two things: either the people of New York were becoming increasingly furtive; or the police were coding a broader range of actions as furtive. This in itself gets to a basic point about police work: forms must be completed and the people, situations and actions must fit into a finite set of boxes.

In Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, Michael Lipsky discusses the perils of bureaucratic functionaries who must deal with the public. Of them, police are typical.

One of Lipsky’s central questions goes something like, “How can you tell if a cop is doing a good job?” How about high arrest rates? Seems plausible.

High arrest rates may mean the officer is Super Cop. Then again, it may mean the officer uses arrest too frequently because he lacks the skills and repertoire to resolve matters less formally. One could be an exceptionally effective cop and rarely arrest anyone. Low arrest rates could also mean the officer was lazy and completely laissez-faire in his response to crime. As Lipsky observes, bureaucracies typically measure what’s easiest to measure, even if it doesn’t reveal anything useful. Stop and frisk is easy to measure.

Circling back to NYPD’s stop and frisk numbers, they have increased these stops by hundreds of thousands in just a few years. Even so, the vast majority of people that NYPD stops are found to be guilty of nothing other than having raised an officer’s suspicion. Consequently, many civil rights activists have come out of the proverbial woodwork to castigate the NYPD.

Like it or not, the basic policing strategy that drives the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy undergirds the entire U. S. police culture.

In brief, rookie cops are taught to learn their beats … to know every house, car, person, dog, doorknob and ditch. Over time they learn what is “normal” for their beat. When a new thing comes into their territory, t hey evaluate it for its potential fit and danger. If that “thing” happens to be a person (more often than not, it is), then that person’s appearance is cast against a context of what “normally” happens in that place.

You could call it stereotyping, but psychologists term it forming “diagnostic packages.” We all do this every day. Just like the game on Sesame Street… “one of these things is not like the others…”

Taken to the extreme it becomes racist, classist and ugly. Unfortunately, knowing what belongs (and what doesn’t) is exactly what we want the cops to do, unless of course, it’s us that “doesn’t belong.”

It would be great if cops were omniscient, but they aren’t. Like the rest of us, they collect tidbits of information, trying to assemble meaningful pictures and stories. They are taught to be intuitive and quick acting, not circumspective and reflective. Crime afoot requires rapid intercession; and prevention is always better than reaction. How then, should they proceed?

Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com