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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Police Stops Go Up, Citizen Complaints Go Down -- What Gives?

The Milwaukee Police Department has just released some new data on traffic and subject stops.  There is a fascinating story here on policing strategy.  Since 2007, Milwaukee has experiened a dramatic increase in the number of stops: both traffic and subject stops are up close to 250%.  This has been part of a deliberate strategy to increase the number of police-citizen contacts, especially in high-crime neighborhoods.  (The MPD has also been very active over the past four years in promoting uncoerced police-citizen contacts, too.)  The objectives are to gather intelligence, disrupt criminal activity, and enhance community perceptions of safety in public spaces.  

As hoped, crime has indeed gone down considerably since 2007: violent crime is down 24%, and property crime is down 21%.  Whether and to what extent the increased-stops strategy has caused the crime drop is uncertain -- the MPD has also made some other significant changes in the past four years, and, in any event, crime has been dropping nationwide -- but the causal claim strikes me as at least facially plausible.  Providing some additional support is a month-by-month breakdown of auto theft and robbery data: in general, in months when stops have lagged, auto thefts and robberies have spiked; in months when stops have spiked, auto thefts and robberies have dropped.

But safety has a cost.  

Citizens are being stopped by the police tens of thousands more times now per year than they were in 2007.   The great majority of these stops do not result in an arrest, suggesting that most who suffer the inconvenience and embarassment of a stop are not guilty in any substantial way.  Moreover, because of the racial demographics of the high-crime neighborhoods in which stops are concentrated, African-Americans bear a greatly disproportionate share of the inconvenience and embarrassment relative to their share of the general population.

There is some risk that such racial disparities may prove counterproductive to the goal of enhancing police legitimacy and decreasing crime in the targeted neighborhoods.  (See, for instance, this post, which discusses concerns about the potential impact of racial profiling on police effectiveness.)

Yet, as far as I can tell, there has yet to be any significant backlash against the disparities or the underlying strategic choices.  In conversations and in the local media, I regularly hear complaints about the heavy-handedness of the TSA, but I almost never hear such complaints about the MPD.  Admittedly, I do not live in any of the neighborhoods most affected by the increased-stops strategy.  Yet, even in my relatively low-crime neighborhood, I can remember hearing frequent complaints about MPD racism when I first moved to the city a decade ago.

This brings us to what may be the most surprising aspect of the MPD data: despite the huge increase in the number of coercive police-citizen contacts, the number of citizen complaints is down by more than 44%.

What gives?

The cynical hypothesis would be that the MPD is doing something to discourage or impede complaints.  However, I'm not aware of any evidence of this, and, in fact, I understand that steps have been taken in recent years to facilitate complaint-filing.

Another possbility is better training and supervision of the officers in the street.  As noted above, improving police-community relations has been a major priority of the current MPD leadership, and some of that must be filtering down the ranks, which could result in greater restraint and more respectful treatment during stops.

Still another possibility is that the innocent people targeted for stops are actually willing to accept the inconvenience in view of the benefits of the MPD's strategy.  As the MPD data demonstrate, African-Americans are disproportionately victimized by crime in the city, and African-Americans are disproportionately identified as suspects.  African-Americans might thus see the increased number of stops in their neighborhoods as a rational and even reassuring response to the high rates of victimization they experience.  In turn, this positive perspective on the strategy might lead to greater tolerance of tactics that might otherwise lead to complaints.

One final possibility that I find particularly fascinating is framing effects.  The numbers are not included in the data I linked to above, but I have seen elsewhere that the number of tickets written by the MPD has stayed relatively constant, even as the number of traffic stops has increased so dramatically.  Most stopped motorists get off with a warning.   For many, this must profoundly color their emotional response to the stop (I know it would for me).  Instead of "I'm so irritated with this cop who interrupted my day because I was going a few miles per hour over the limit," the dominant feeling is "I'm so relieved that this nice cop gave me a break."  Whatever else is going on, routinely showing lenience to stopped motorists must surely contribute in some measure to public acceptance of the increased-stops strategy.  It must also help to defuse some of the anger that might otherwise lead to complaints.

Disclaimer: I serve as a member of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, which is a civilian oversight agency for the police.  However, I have not had any role in the development of the increased-stops strategy.  A lengthy video of MPD Chief Ed Flynn explaining the strategy and responding to racial disparity concerns is here.

Posted by Michael O'Hear on December 4, 2011 at 05:03 PM in Criminal Law | Permalink

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