Print Issue Volume 101 - Issue 6

The Consequences of Disparate Policing: Evaluating Stop and Frisk as a Modality of Urban Policing

Beginning in the 1990s, police departments in major American cities started aggressively deploying pedestrian stops and frisks in response to escalating violent crime rates. Today, high-volume use of “stop, question, and frisk” (SQF) is an acute point of friction between urban police and minority residents. In numerous cities, recent consent decrees or settlements have imposed Fourth Amendment and Equal Protection Clause constraints on police. But do these constitutional rules adequately respond to the harms of SQF? This Article argues that the core moral objection to SQF does not track the Constitution’s focus upon the evidentiary sufficiency of stops or the racial animus of individual officers. I develop instead a new account of the distinctive wrong of aggressive street policing that is not contingent on individual animus or fault. This alternative account turns on the manner in which such policing can reproduce social and racial stratification. To substantiate this, I present a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of SQF, with careful attention to its ecological spillovers and dynamic, intergenerational effects. After explaining why constitutional law’s narrow transactional frame precludes an effective response, I articulate an alternative lens that is constitutionally and legally available for diagnosing harmful forms of urban street policing. This draws from the disparate impact framework of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and certain states’ laws. While an imprecise fit, disparate impact is legally feasible and readily available. To show that this approach is workable, I sketch three lines of econometric analysis capable of identifying an especially troubling subclass of racial disparate impacts in urban street policing.

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