Professor Tyler Co-Authors Study about the Impact of Street Stops on Police Legitimacy

A study by professors at Yale, Columbia, and New York University found that young men’s interactions with police generally negatively influenced their views about police legitimacy. This research has important implications for cities such as New York City where the widespread use of “stop and frisk” police tactics has led to large number of contacts between the police and members of the public. Although these stops have been the focus of contentious litigation, resulting in the recent Floyd decision, and were a contentious political issue in the recent New York City mayoral election, their impact upon those stopped has not been systematically explored. To the extent that experiences undermine police legitimacy, as this study suggests they generally do, the actions of the police in attempting to control crime are also generating crime and undermining cooperation with the community.

In particular interviews a sample of young men indicated that stops decreased police legitimacy and were associated with both higher levels of later criminal behavior and lower levels of future willingness to help the police fight crime by reporting crimes and criminals in the community.

The study was authored by Tom Tyler, the Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School; Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School; and Amanda Geller, Department of Sociology, New York University. The results were published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

The study was based on a 25-minute telephone survey of 1261 men living in New York City and aged 18 to 26. Respondents were asked the number of times they were stopped by New York Police Department officers, as well as about the details of these interactions. Fifty-six percent reported at least one contact during the year prior to the interview, and 85% indicated some contact in their lifetime.

The study examined how stops influenced law-related attitudes and behaviors. The results indicated first, that the general impact of being stopped was to lower police legitimacy and change behavior. The degree to which stops undermined police legitimacy depended upon two factors: whether the person stopped believed that the actions of the police were lawful and whether they felt that the police had treated them fairly. These results indicate that judgments about street stops shaped their impact. Tyler says that “while the overall impact of stops was to undermine legitimacy, the degree to which a particular experience did so was linked to the young person’s judgments about the behavior of the officer(s) involved. Whether the person stopped believed that the officers had a lawful reason for their actions and whether they conducted the stop fairly shaped the type of impact the experience had upon trust and confidence in the police.”

Although particular street stops did not negatively influence those stopped if the police were believed to have acted legally and when the officers treated the person fairly, the study further suggested that as young men experienced repeated stops they were less likely to evaluate those stops as being legal or to feel that they had been treated fairly by the police. Hence, the police may initially benefit from trust in their intentions when young men evaluate contacts with the police but a policy leading to repeated stops undermined that initial trust and resulted in declines in police legitimacy.

Researchers concluded that police stops played a role in the legal socialization of young men. When stops were experienced as unjustified and unfair they conveyed the message that the law and legal authorities were not legitimate. Those more negative views translated into changed behavior. One change was an increase in criminal behavior. Controlling on each person’s long-term likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior, those who scored low in their judgments of police legitimacy were found to be engaged in twice as much recent criminal activity. A second type of behavioral consequence was a lower level of willingness to report crimes to the police and to otherwise cooperate with the legal system, for example to serve on a jury.

Results of the study were also published in the American Journal of Public Health, highlighting the connection between police interactions and increased anxiety and trauma in young men. “[The connection] raises concerns that the aggressive nature of proactive policing may have implications not only for police–community relations but also for local public health. In fact, the significant outcomes and respondent perceptions of procedural justice suggest that police–community relations and local public health are inextricably linked,” reported the researchers.

While the study shows a strong association between street stops, views about police legitimacy, and criminal behavior, it is important to remember that the study was based upon interviews and participants may have either exaggerated or minimized their views and behavioral reports. Nonetheless “the strong association between police conduct, police legitimacy and law-related behavior raise serious concerns about potential unintended consequences of police activity,” according to the study. In particular, while the police present their policies as making New Yorkers safer by lowering the rate of crime these results suggest that the activities of the police also increase the number of crimes by undermining the legitimacy of the police and the law.