I wanted to draw people’s attention to an excellent debate over at NYTimes.com on the New York Police Department’s Stop and Frisk policy. In particular, the response by Paul Butler cites the same research by Tom Tyler that we cite in the book.
As background, the police may stop someone on the street and conduct a “pat down” of the outside of their clothing with only “reasonable suspicion” that the person might be engaged in or be intending to engage in illegal activity. Such a search is called a “Stop and Frisk”. And it turns out that the NYPD has been conducting these searches with abandon lately; last year, the average young black male in New York City was stopped more than once. (Note that they may not search your pockets, bags, etc. without either a warrant or “probable cause,” which is a much higher standard.)
Now, to understand how these kinds of policies can degrade trust in the police, think about the last time that you were pulled over. Personally, I’ve been pulled over half a dozen times, and given two tickets. Both tickets were legitimate–I actually was speeding in both cases, although not by much–and the police had good reason to pull me over at least three other times. And yet trust me, I complained vociferously about each and every one of them. And I’m certainly not the only one. Red light cameras are incredibly controversial in many communities around the country, despite the fact that they are designed to catch people in the act of committing an actual crime.
So now how would you feel if twice a year, or more, a cop stopped you on the street and demanded to pat you down because he thought you looked suspicious? What would that do to your feelings about the police? Suddenly the police go from being someone who we tell our kids to go find if they get lost or are in trouble, to someone that we tell our kids to stay away from.