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Patterns of "stop and frisk" activity by police across New York City neighborhoods reflect competing theories of aggressive policing. "Broken Windows" theory suggest that neighborhoods with greater concentration of physical and social disorder should evidence higher stop and frisk activity, especially for "quality of life" crimes. However, although disorder theory informs quality of life policing strategies, patterns of stop and frisk activity suggest that neighborhood characteristics such as racial composition, poverty levels, and extent of social disorganization are stronger predictors of race- and crime-specific stops. Accordingly, neighborhood "street stop" activity reflects competing assumptions and meanings of policing strategy. Furthermore, looking at the rate at which street stops meet Terry standards of reasonable suspicion in various neighborhoods provides additional perspective on the social and strategic meanings of policing. Our empirical evidence suggests that policing is not about disorderly places, nor about improving the quality of life, but about policing poor people in poor places. This strategy contradicts the policy rationale derived from Broken Windows theory, and deviates from the original emphasis on communities by focusing on people. Racially disparate policing reinforces perceptions by citizens in minority neighborhoods that they are under non-particularized suspicion and are therefore targeted for aggressive stop and frisk policing. Such broad targeting raises concerns about the legitimacy of law, threatens to weaken citizen participation in the co-production of security, and undercuts the broader social norms goals of contemporary policing.


Law | Law and Race | Law Enforcement and Corrections


This article was initially published in Volume 28 of the Fordham Urban Law Journal and is republished with permission.