Precinct or Prejudice? Understanding Racial Disparities in New York City's Stop-and-Frisk Policy

Annals of Applied Statistics, Vol. 10, No. 1, 365–394, 2016

30 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2015 Last revised: 2 Apr 2016

See all articles by Sharad Goel

Sharad Goel

Stanford University

Justin M. Rao

Microsoft Research; Microsoft Corporation - Microsoft Research - Redmond

Ravi Shroff

New York University (NYU)

Date Written: March 2, 2015

Abstract

Recent studies have examined racial disparities in stop-and-frisk, a widely employed but controversial policing tactic. The statistical evidence, however, has been limited and contradictory. We investigate by analyzing three million stops in New York City over five years, focusing on cases where officers suspected the stopped individual of criminal possession of a weapon (CPW). For each CPW stop, we estimate the ex ante probability that the detained suspect has a weapon. We find that in more than 40% of cases, the likelihood of finding a weapon (typically a knife) was less than 1%, raising concerns that the legal requirement of “reasonable suspicion” was often not met. We further find that blacks and Hispanics were disproportionately stopped in these low hit rate contexts, a phenomenon that we trace to two factors: (1) lower thresholds for stopping individuals — regardless of race — in high-crime, predominately minority areas, particularly public housing; and (2) lower thresholds for stopping minorities relative to similarly situated whites. Finally, we demonstrate that by conducting only the 6% of stops that are statistically most likely to result in weapons seizure, one can both recover the majority of weapons and mitigate racial disparities in who is stopped. We show that this statistically informed stopping strategy can be approximated by simple, easily implemented heuristics with little loss in efficiency.

Note: This paper is available to download from SSRN by permission of the Annals of Applied Statistics. The journal's website is imstat dot org/aoas.

Keywords: stop-and-frisk, profiling, predictive policing

JEL Classification: K00, K42

Suggested Citation

Goel, Sharad and Rao, Justin M. and Shroff, Ravi, Precinct or Prejudice? Understanding Racial Disparities in New York City's Stop-and-Frisk Policy (March 2, 2015). Annals of Applied Statistics, Vol. 10, No. 1, 365–394, 2016, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2572718 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2572718

Sharad Goel

Stanford University ( email )

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Justin M. Rao (Contact Author)

Microsoft Research ( email )

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Microsoft Corporation - Microsoft Research - Redmond ( email )

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Ravi Shroff

New York University (NYU) ( email )

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