'Proactive Policing' Could Be Creating Criminals

New research finds that minority youth who are confronted by officers are more likely to subsequently engage in delinquent behavior than those who don't face such encounters.
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A police officer wears a body camera during an anti-Donald Trump protest in Cleveland

"Directing officers to make contact with individual boys and young men in 'high-crime' areas may impose a terrible cost."

Say you're an adolescent male, and while casually strolling through the streets of your neighborhood, you get stopped by a cop. He asks where you've been, what you've been doing, and who you've been hanging out with. He then sternly warns you to stay out of trouble before driving off.

You might think such stops would help deter antisocial behavior. In fact, new research suggests quite the opposite.

In a study featuring high school-age black, Latino, and mixed-race males in a major American city, researchers found that those who had experienced such a face-to-face encounter with the police subsequently engaged in more acts of juvenile delinquency, such as theft and vandalism, than those who had not.

This pattern—based on the kids' self-reports—was true even for boys who had rarely participated in delinquent behavior before the stop. The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that this behavior may be a result of the mental and emotional distress such encounters can create.

"Directing officers to make contact with individual boys and young men in 'high-crime' areas may impose a terrible cost," writes a research team led by New York University psychologist Juan Del Toro. "These potentially damaging consequences warrant urgent attention from social scientists and policymakers."

The study featured 637 boys from six public high schools in "high-intensity policing neighborhoods" in a large city in the southwestern United States. The areas were all subject to "proactive policing," a strategy in which law enforcement agencies "seek to prevent crimes by proactively deploying officers in places where crime is likely to be reported, and interacting with the people most likely to be accused of crimes," the researchers write.

The participants—who broke down ethnically as 57.5 percent Latino, 23.1 percent African American, and 19.4 percent "other nonwhite"—were surveyed in September of 2013, during their first semester of ninth grade, and again every six months through the spring of 2015.

On each survey, they were asked, "How many times in the past six months were you stopped and frisked by the police while walking?" They also reported whether and how often they had performed a series of delinquent acts during that period. For example, they were asked, "In the last six months, have you stolen, or tried to steal, something worth more than $50?" If so, they were asked to estimate how often they had committed that offense.

Finally, the researchers measured the subjects' psychological distress as part of each survey. The boys responded to statements indicating depression, anxiety, and/or stress.

The researchers found that the kids' level of delinquent behavior was unrelated to whether they had been stopped by a cop during the previous six months. If such stops are meant to inhibit bad behavior, they were ineffective with this group.

More troublingly, the team found that, on average, the more frequently a boy had been stopped, the more often he went on to engage in delinquent behavior six, 12, and 18 months later. This association was stronger "the younger boys are when stopped for the first time," they add.

Further analysis suggested that one factor behind this behavior is the psychological stress that results from interacting with police. "Police stops, distress, and delinquency were contemporaneously related with one another," the researchers write. This finding suggests that such actions "may unintentionally increase their engagement in criminal behavior."

The team's results complicate a 2017 National Academies of Sciences Report, which "found evidence that proactive policing strategies can reduce crime." But these new findings suggest they can also psychologically scar young men, which is a problem not just for the men themselves, but for their neighborhoods too.

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