‘Stop and Frisk’ Stirs Up, Rather than Deters, Youth Crime

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Law enforcement reminders of the consequences of criminal behavior are supposed to curb illegal activity, but some of these intimidation strategies may be backfiring, especially among youth.

In the latest study of stop and frisk policies, in which law enforcement randomly stop individuals for questioning even if they aren’t engaged in criminal activity, researchers found that those who were stopped were more likely than those who were not to engage in delinquent behavior later on.

The results, published in the journal Crime and Delinquency, are only the latest among a growing body of data suggesting that some juvenile justice tactics, including programs that rely on the “Scared Straight” harangues by prison inmates, boot camps and juvenile lockups could ultimately do more harm than good.

In the current study, Stephanie Wiley, a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri in St. Louis and her colleagues followed some 2,600 students enrolled in a classroom-based gang prevention program in seven cities from 2006 to 2013.  Over the course of that time, some teens were stopped by the police, some stopped and arrested and others were not.

By the end of the study, those who did have police contact early in the trial period reported committing five more delinquent acts on average, ranging from cutting classes to selling drugs and attacking people with a weapon, than those who were not stopped randomly by police. And the students who were arrested for any reason wound up committing around 15 more delinquent acts on average than those who were not. The rates held even after the scientists adjusted for the effect of age, race and previous delinquency that could also affect their odds of being targeted by the police.

“The most important finding was the fact that [police contact] had not only an effect on offending, but also on attitudes and other measures,” says Wiley. Those who were stopped were less likely to report that they would feel guilty if they were to commit future offenses. They also tended to agree with statements that rationalized antisocial behavior.

The results confirmed previous work that connected experiences such as police contacts, arrest and incarceration to stigmatization; these experiences can cement a negative identity that promotes further delinquent behavior.  Police interactions can also lead a teen’s peers, as well as his social circle, to view him more negatively and further channel him away from positive influences.

“The theory is that when you’re publicly labeled as delinquent, you start to take on that role and experience social exclusion,” says Wiley, “You might also become friends with others who are delinquent based on a shared background, values and beliefs.”

Similarly, attempts to reform delinquent children may also backfire, by creating equally defeating situations since they place youth in prisons or other programs where all or nearly all of their peers are at least somewhat deviant — unlike regular schools where they are surrounded by a majority of fellow students who do not engage in antisocial acts.

In one telling study, for example, youth who committed similar offenses and were placed in the juvenile justice system were seven times more likely to be arrested as adults than those who were either not caught or not punished, and those who were incarcerated were 37 times more likely to have adult arrests.  Similar findings have also been reported for some drug treatment and boot camp programs.

MORE: Why Juvenile Detention Makes Kids Worse

What these studies argue for are more positive and productive interactions between young people and law enforcement— rather than the accusatory and punitive attitude that drives them now. “We can’t just go and trash the police,” says Finn-Aage Esbensen, professor of youth crime and violence at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Wiley’s co-author. Police demeanor, he says, can go a long way toward diffusing youthful anti-authority impulses. Respectful treatment can potentially lead kids to see the system as fair, which reduces resistance.

“A lot of it is in the delivery,” says Esbensen, explaining that police who are connected to the community and engaged in positive interactions with youth, such as spear-heading anti-gang programs, are more likely to avoid targeting them unfairly and therefore be more accepted when negative contact is necessary.

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What do these latest results mean for cities like New York, where “stop and frisk” policies led to more than 120,000 stops of black and Latino youth between 14 and 18 in 2011 alone? Statistics from the New York Civil Liberties Union for that year show that 88% of all people stopped were innocent— and the overwhelming majority were minorities. While studies haven’t examined the relationship between stop and frisk policies and crime rates, if, as Wiley’s study suggests, these stops actually undermine respect for the law and increase delinquency, then the city could end up seeing a rise, rather than a drop, in crime rates in the long run.

If that happens, it should prompt a re-evaluation of some of these deterrent strategies, since common sense tactics— even a simple police stop — can have unintended, and undesirable, consequences.