Study Analyzes Impact of Police Stops on Mental Health

A study by professors at Yale and Columbia universities has found a connection between what happens when young men interact involuntarily with the police, and their increased anxiety and trauma overall, as well as their reluctance to cooperate with the police in general.

The research was spurred by the increase of the use of “stop and frisk” in New York: “We examined associations between involuntary police contact and mental health among young men in New York City, where Terry stops and proactive policing (commonly known as ‘stop and frisk’ activity) have been the subject of contentious debate and litigation,” the report said. “Despite the heated debate on police practices, little is known about the health implications of involuntary contact with the police.”

The study was authored by Amanda Geller, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University; Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School; Tom Tyler, the Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School; and Bruce G. Link, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. The results were published in the American Journal of Public Health, a publication of the American Public Health Association.

The study consisted of a 25-minute telephone survey of 1261 men aged 18 to 26 in New York City. Respondents were asked the number of times they were approached by New York Police Department officers, the details of these interactions, any trauma they attributed to the police stops, and their overall anxiety. In addition to these public health impacts of experience with the police the study replicated prior studies undertaken by Tyler in finding an influence of stops on young men’s trust and confidence in the law, as well as their future criminal behavior. Tyler suggests that “involuntary contact with the police increased their involvement in crime as well as undermining the willingness to cooperate with the police in fighting crime.”

Researchers concluded that there is a relationship between police stops and mental health. “This 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.

The authors acknowledged that subjects may have exaggerated when describing their experiences and that those with mental health issues may have been more likely to be stopped or reacted to police in a way that changed the intensity of their interaction with a police officer. However, “the strong associations between police conduct and population health raise serious concerns about potential unintended consequences of police activity, suggesting a need for longitudinal research disentangling the causal nature of these associations.”