A Big Problem in Police Abuse

A new study suggests police may search and use force more often against black and Hispanic men they perceive to be large.
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Photos surround the casket of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church awaiting the start of his funeral on August 25, 2014, in St. Louis Missouri. (Photo: Richard Perry-Pool/Getty Images)

Photos surround the casket of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church awaiting the start of his funeral on August 25, 2014, in St. Louis Missouri. (Photo: Richard Perry-Pool/Getty Images)

Everyone knows the names Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The deaths of these unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement officers highlighted the racial disparities that plague policing. But these men had something else in common as well: their size. Both were over six feet tall and close to 300 pounds. Differential treatment by police based on race is a well-documented phenomenon, but the effect of size on those disparities has not been widely studied.

Take the New York Police Department: Data from the NYPD's Stop, Question, and Frisk program—which allows officers to search a person without a warrant if they have reasonable suspicion that the suspect has a weapon—shows that, in the majority of New York precincts, over half of the stops made by police were of black or Hispanic people. In half of precincts, those two groups account for 90 percent of stops. But the effect of size on those disparities has not been widely analyzed. In a new study, published last week in PLoS One, researchers from the University of Alabama–Birmingham sought to fill in the gaps on the role of size in these stop and frisk interactions.

The larger the man was perceived to be, the more likely he was to be searched by police.

The team looked at interactions between officers and male suspects recorded in the Stop, Question, and Frisk program's database between 2006 and 2013 to find out how a suspect's perceived size and body mass index related to a police officer's subsequent actions—whether they stopped, searched, or used force against the suspect.

The results were disheartening, if unsurprising: It seems that the larger the man was perceived to be, the more likely he was to be searched by police, and the more likely officers were to report using a "physical intervention," or force. Black and Hispanic men of all sizes were more likely to be frisked than their white counterparts, with the largest men of each group being the most at risk for search and physical intervention by police.

There were more than 74,000 black men and upwards of 17,500 Hispanic men over six feet tall and more than 205 pounds stopped during the study period; 58 percent of the black men and 60 percent of the Hispanic men were searched, while 24 and 26 percent, respectively, had force used against them. Meanwhile, nearly 11,000 white men of the same size were stopped over the same period. Forty-six percent were searched and 18 percent had force used against them by officers.

It's important to look at how size interacts with race in these situations because, while we all think we see the world as it really is, visual perception is not unbiased. For example, after officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, in his testimony to the Grand Jury he compared the 18-year-old to Hulk Hogan, and said that Brown was "almost bulking up to run through the shots," suggesting that as the bullets hit him, they only made the teenager angry and stronger.

This research shows how widespread that bias really is.

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