How ‘Proactive Policing’ Might Impact Health

23:15 minutes

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In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they’d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like “hot spots” policing and “stop and frisk,” or “terry stops.” The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it’s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities. 

Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there’s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice—which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained—comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences. 

Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing.

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Segment Guests

Samuel Walker

Samuel Walker is an emeritus professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska.

Alyasah Ali Sewell

Alyasah Ali Sewell is an associate professor of Sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Coming up, we’ll talk about the president’s plans to get human boots back on the moon by 2024, and why that deadline may be scuttle. But first, policing in America, a controversial subject to say the least. And over the last few years, it’s only become more heated as several high profile police citizen confrontations have gone viral.

But today, we’re tackling a different part of that conversation, health. The idea that policing has physical and mental health consequences. Some public health researchers say, yes, it might just do that. But before we get into that, let’s talk about how policing in America as we see it today, even came to be. How did we get here? Here to tell us more about that is our first guest, Sam Walker, professor emeritus in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Omaha in Nebraska. Welcome to Science Friday.

SAM WALKER: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Can you start by defining for us the term, proactive policing. What does it mean to police proactively?

SAM WALKER: Well, contacts between the police and citizens fall into two categories. Proactive actions are where the police initiate the contact. The other category, the majority of them, are reactive. That’s where somebody calls 911, or they flagged down a police car. And the police react to that.

IRA FLATOW: And so you have written about the history of proactive policing. Tell it tell us how this sort of policing came to be.

SAM WALKER: Well, police always did proactive policing, where they would initiate some kind of contact. But I think there was a real shift in the late ’70s and 1980s. Where because of developments in technology, and criminology, and our understanding of crime and disorder, today’s proactive policing programs, a lot of which are referred to as smart policing, are really much better, much more scientific than the old style.

IRA FLATOW: What do you mean by that, scientific?

SAM WALKER: They are data driven, and so one of the most popular of the proactive programs is called hotspots. There was this one study, it started out as a small study in Minneapolis. And they discovered that when you analyzed all the 911 calls coming into the Minneapolis Police Department, 5% of the locations in the city accounted for over half of all the police contacts, all of their actions.

And so hotspots represents the idea that crime and disorder is really concentrated in certain geographic areas. And so it logically follows if you really want to deal effectively with crime and disorder, you concentrate police efforts in those areas. And so this is really smart policing.

You know, back in the old days, let’s say, the old days, like the 1960s, there would be a bunch of robberies or something in a neighborhood. And the police would just flood the area with more patrol cars. Let’s politely call it not smart policing. We could call it some other things, but it’s basically– it’s not driven by any plan, any data, any strategic objectives.

IRA FLATOW: That sounds like the old days, where we had the cop on the beat would be walking around getting to know everybody.

SAM WALKER: Well the cop on the beat is shrouded in mythology. And this idea that back in the late 19th century, for example, you know, the cop on the beat knew everybody there. Not true. There’s no evidence to support that. That’s part of this myth making of once upon a time, there was a golden age that was better than the way things are today. Not true.

IRA FLATOW: So what you’re saying is once we brought some science into it, and we can analyze the data, we can get a better idea of where the crime was happening.

SAM WALKER: Right. Well, the science told us where it is, where these bad events are occurring. Then it fell to police departments working with this whole new generation of criminologists to figure out to develop some strategies for effectively dealing with that crime and disorder.

IRA FLATOW: And did those strategies work?

SAM WALKER: Some are more effective than others. Most of them, there’s very limited evidence about effectiveness. You mentioned the history of proactive policing that I did. That was a special report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, which had a panel. This is their standard operating procedure, and they reviewed all of the evidence on proactive policing. So I was not a member of that panel. They just commissioned me separately to do this paper on the history of proactive policing.

IRA FLATOW: And what did that show, the panel or the conclusions?

SAM WALKER: Well, there are some programs, which there is some good evidence that they work. But most of them, there’s mixed evidence at best, or weak evidence, or just no evidence at all. And one of the most important, which they stress very strongly in the report is if you do too much proactive policing in particular neighborhoods or neighborhoods where a particular community, African-American community lives, a Hispanic community lives, you can do a lot of damage. You can result in an unconstitutional policing of excessive stops, and frisks, and arrests. So there’s some real problems built into proactive policing.

IRA FLATOW: I want to bring on another conversation, bring in another guest. Alyasah Ali Sewell is associate professor of sociology at Emory University. Welcome to Science Friday.

ALYASAH SEWELL: Thank you for inviting me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. You’ve done some research on the health impacts of stop and frisk, a proactive policing tactic. That was the focus of much media attention and activism here in New York. First, tell us, what exactly is stop and frisk?

ALYASAH SEWELL: So stop and frisk refers to a criminal surveillance program, where people can be stopped on the street, because they appear to be a suspect. Or they appear to be doing something that is wrong.

IRA FLATOW: And we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of your research after the break, but in the big picture sense, what has your research revealed about how this sort of policing impacts health?

ALYASAH SEWELL: My research has shown that policing sickens society. Proactive pro surveillance etches ailment into our neighborhoods and embeds illness into the body.

IRA FLATOW: And you actually went out and studied these statistics on these societies?

ALYASAH SEWELL: Yes, most of the work– actually, all the work that has been published is focused on New York City, which is where we have the best data. And we’re using– me and a couple of colleagues are using pretty advanced statistics to pull apart the ways in which society matters. Not just for the individual, but also matters for the context in which the individual is located.

IRA FLATOW: And were you surprised by these results?

ALYASAH SEWELL: Honestly, I was. My work before I started doing work on policing, my work will be focused on housing redlining. And in that literature, we all know that where you live matters. We know it matters for your health and for other types of social outcomes.

But when I started to do the work on policing– I stopped pushing frisk in particular in New York City. –I found that the effects of policing were far more robust than anything I’d ever seen before. So I was very surprised.

IRA FLATOW: I want to bring in someone who has firsthand knowledge about this. Our producer, Danya Abdel Hamid, caught up with a young man named Kasiem Walters, to talk with him about his experiences with stop and frisk. He is a 24-year-old Brooklynite, and the first time he was stopped, he thinks he was about seven. But it would happen, again, and, again, many times after that.

KASIEM WALTERS: I’m going to say roughly like a dozen times, and I was like when I started counting. I had a really bad experience in high school. I was a high school senior, so about 17 maybe. I was waiting for my friend. He was deaf, so I was kind of like trying to get him integrated into the community.

I was waiting for him outside of his house, and they came up to me. And they’re like, hey, you know, were truancy cops. And truancy cops, their sole purpose is to kind of like stop kids from like cutting school, so I guess they thought I was cutting school. And I was like, no, I’m just waiting for my friend. You know, we don’t have a zero period or a first period. We start second period.

And he was like, you know, we’re not that dumb. We weren’t born yesterday, and he kind of like turned me around really roughly. There was nobody else on the block, so like no one was able to witness what was going on and like manhandled me.

I’m a little kid at the time. You know, I’m not really built at that age. I’m super scrawny, and like really turned me around, rushed me up, emptied my bags, went through my things, my belongings, just like threw it all on the floor. And they’re like, where is it?

And I’m like, where is what? They’re like, where is it? We know you have some on you, and they’re like, everyone does it. You know, you think you’re cool. You cut school to do it, and I’m like, I still don’t– I can’t connect, again. And they’re like, OK, well, then you’re going to put this back in your bag, and then we’ll just catch you another time. You got away this time.

You know, when I see a cop now, again, it’s not the same fear I had when I was younger. But no matter what– and people can say like, oh yeah, I know my rights. I’m going to stand up to them at the end of the day. And every single person, especially a black male, there’s always a PTSD moment, even if you haven’t had stop and frisk. You know the culture, like what do I do when I walk by?

You shouldn’t have to feel like that. As a black man, I’ve never had to think so much about the passing of someone more than I have with a New York City cop or with a cop in general. I think the fear comes from the thought of, what could happen if you do this? If I walk home the right way, what could happen?

If I pass this person, what could happen if I wear this hoodie today? What could happen if I wear these certain colors? Like you shouldn’t have to as a young African-American males say, OK, what colors am I allowed to wear? That sounds crazy. It wasn’t until I got out of high school, and I was like, this is crazy.

And like that’s really how it was, and you know, I didn’t have the– again, I didn’t have the guidance around me to say, no, like you can do this, you can do that. So I just settled, and I settled. And I settled, and I settled. And I think that’s another effect on the mind, and it’s an effect on your self-esteem, you know? What that can do to a person, it breaks down just your confidence, your social skills. It does so much, because I saw it spilling into other areas of my life.

That was Kasiem Walters, a 23-year-old Brooklynite. In this city, this is not uncommon, Sam Walker, as is someone who studies these kinds of confrontations.

SAM WALKER: Yes. Actually, I should add here that I was an expert witness in the court case that declared the New York City policy unconstitutional, so I had sort of an inside look. I got to see all of the policies, and procedures, and data. And the New York City policy was not smart policing. It was stupid policing. It was also unlawful and unconstitutional.

And the story we just heard was repeated hundreds of thousands of times, but I’m talking about the health consequences. Proactive policing, where the police initiate that contact, well, for all people, that’s an unpleasant, and uncomfortable, stressful situation. Now if it’s repeated many times, that just jacks up the level of stress, and the mental health consequences, and the physical consequences. And so policing that is unconstitutional, as we’ve just described, is also very unhealthy policing for the victims of those stops.

IRA FLATOW: That’s what I want to get into after our break, so I want to just take a break now. We’ll try to go and dissect that, the healthy aspects of it for not just the people involved, but the unhealthy aspects about the whole community, how it spills over. As he said, it spilled over into all his aspects of life. We’ll talk about it after the break.

If you have something you’d like to comment, please, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break. You’re listening to Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about a proactive policing, including stopping and frisking people, and what mental and social effects it may have.

And then now there is real science that has been done to actually figure out how that is happening. My guests are Alyasah Ali Sewell, associate professor of sociology at Emory University, and Sam Walker, professor emeritus in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Omaha. Alyasah, let me get into this a little bit about the science. What sort of physical and mental problems are you seeing in connection with stop and frisk?

ALYASAH SEWELL: So they run the gamut. The gamut includes physical health problems, like believing that your health is poor or fair, having a diagnosis of diabetes, having a diagnosis of high blood pressure, even having an asthma episode within the past year. And obesity, it’s linked to higher levels obesity.

IRA FLATOW: And is this affecting people of all ages of where they live? And what is the demographics of this?

ALYASAH SEWELL: Well, the first couple of studies I did, they looked at all ages, everybody over 18. So there is work on how policing a fixed youth, primarily thinking about the direct effects of it. So if you are personally stopped, the extent to which the data is going to be linked to higher levels, primarily of mental health problem of psychological distress. But in my studies, I use adults going up to the age of 95.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, and you’re saying now, you can because of the study’s draw a direct line between the policing practices and the health of the people.

ALYASAH SEWELL: And particularly, the policing practices that are happening within a context, within the neighborhood. So the strongest relationship is linked to absolute levels of use of force and physical and mental health problems. This includes all the ones I just mentioned to you, as well as psychological distress. There’s also increases of mental health problems among in neighborhoods where people are having forced against them, and there’s also higher levels of physical health problems in neighborhoods where there are large racial disparities. This is referring to the relative rate of use of force against minorities compared to their white counterparts.

IRA FLATOW: Does this affect men and women the same way?

ALYASAH SEWELL: It actually doesn’t, and in most of the research that looks at this focuses on the male population. So until this study that I did, which came down to social science and medicine, actually compared men and women living in the same neighborhood. The extent to which they experience psychological distress, you really did know the burden, at least with regards to psychological stress, is stronger among men.

IRA FLATOW: What about the difference between relative and absolute use of force?

ALYASAH SEWELL: So there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that the overall rate of use of force and frisking. And this is different than just being stopped. Now being stopped itself is linked to higher levels of poor health among Latinos and higher levels of high blood pressure among both blacks and Asian Pacific Islanders.

But you also find that it’s linked to things, such as racial disparities in the stop. That’s also linked to physical health problems primarily. But the absolute measures that I use, which are basically higher levels of frisking, higher levels of use of force, they’ve been linked to both physical and mental health problems.

They’ve been found to experience higher levels of illness if you’re predominately in a black or Latino neighborhood, primarily if you’re male. And in the case of high blood pressure, which is a really interesting case, Latinos and Asians actually have higher rates of high blood pressure if they live in neighborhoods where there is large uses of force among the pedestrians.

IRA FLATOW: You notice, this almost seems intuitive. Does it not that people would suffer from feeling targeted on the street? I guess what you’re doing is actually scientifically investigating and putting data behind those feelings.

ALYASAH SEWELL: Well, that is true now. And just to be clear, I don’t necessarily study whether you yourself are stopped, and then whether you yourself have illness problems. I examined the environment, the policing environment, the types of practices that are happening to pedestrians after the stop occurs in areas where the stop is more likely to result in frisking particularly and use of force. You’re seeing higher levels of physical health and mental health problems–

IRA FLATOW: What are some of the–

ALYASAH SEWELL: –independent of whether you personally are stopped.

IRA FLATOW: Sam Walker, have police departments started to change their procedures in light of this new research?

SAM WALKER: Actually, all of the protests that followed Ferguson five years ago, five years and a couple of months, the national protests, and all of the other incidents in Baltimore, Cleveland, and around the country have had an important positive effect. I’m actually giving a paper on this in November. There’s been an extraordinary outburst of reform.

In several different areas of life, state legislatures have passed numerous laws. A number of city councils have passed new procedures for holding the police accountable. There is one group of police chiefs, Police Executive Research Forum, which is you know far more progressive than the main group, the IECP. And they’ve been doing some tremendous things.

So there is a lot happening. There is cause for optimism. The problem is the national news media focuses on the bad news. You know, evening news, it’s the shooting. It’s the beating and so on. And so the conventional wisdom among most people is that, well, gee, nothing’s happened since Ferguson. Actually, a lot has, and there’s a lot of cause for some cautious optimism about that.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, 844-724-8255. Orlando, Audrey in Orlando, hi, welcome to Science Friday.

AUDREY: Hi, thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

AUDREY: My question was, I’m a master’s and criminal justice student. Well, I just graduated. And one of my questions was, could there be an argument made– because I have one professor that made this argument. –that minorities are primarily stopped due to crime mapping?

And not so much as their ethnic makeup, but the neighborhoods that they live in and the crime that takes place there. Can the argument actually be made? Or is there data that proves otherwise?

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s get an answer, Alyasah or Sam.

ALYASAH SEWELL: Yeah, I think my work speaks directly to that. Because in all of the analysis that I do, I actually adjust for the crime levels of the neighborhood. So we actually get data from New York Police Department on whether people are calling in about robbery complaints, or homicides, or so on and so forth.

And we actually able to wipe away the variation in health that is specifically due to crime. We’re also able to wipe away the relationship between policing and health that is linked to crime. So the numbers that I’ve mentioned to you before, you know, something between a nine or more percent increase in physical health problems, mental health problems in neighborhoods where there’s large levels of frisking and use of force, that is independent of the crime in those neighborhoods.

IRA FLATOW: Is it? Do people who feel like they have mental problems, can they go get help for this as a legitimate reason for feeling that way?

ALYASAH SEWELL: I mean, I think that’s where we’re moving towards. I think one of the key things that my work has been doing is establishing a public health relationship that suggests that, in fact, policing itself is an epidemic. So it’s creating an epidemic of assaults. Is it creating an epidemic of illness?

And it’s a type of epidemic that’s not going to go away just because we are starting to de-legalize stop and frisk. That effect is going to stay in the body. Because the types of illnesses that form when someone is stopped, and they’re under a climate of fear, those things get encoded into the body. They get embedded further and deeper into ourselves.

IRA FLATOW: Sam Walker, what do you think about this?

SAM WALKER: Well, you mentioned crime mapping. Hotspots policing, which is the most successful program, most widely used program, is a form of mapping. You’re identifying those parts of town where you have the highest rates of crime and disorder.

Well, the fact of the matter is, those are low income neighborhoods, and they are primarily in neighborhoods of people of color. And so this highly respected program Hotspots, it has this aura of science about it. Wow, it’s driven by data. This is really good stuff.

Well, you’re concentrating, you know, police with their stops, frisks, and other things on a particular segment of the population. And the primary targets are young black men, and that’s confirmed by every bit of good data that we have. And so, I think, we’re just beginning to get the point of thinking that, wait a minute. We need to rethink these kind of scientifically data driven programs because of their impact on a particular part of our community.

IRA FLATOW: Ali, what do you think about that?

ALYASAH SEWELL: You know, I think that the case I want to talk to you about is high blood pressure. High blood pressure is one moment within the lifecycle, where the way you respond to stress changes. And what I’ve found is that when you talk about the relative use of force, the most palpable associations with illness is in regards to high blood pressure.

So in areas where minorities are more likely have force used against them and more likely to be frisked, there’s higher levels of high blood pressure. But I also want you to understand that it’s not just minority areas or minority people. So there is a paper that came out in Sociological Forum, which suggested that in predominately white neighborhoods, where black and brown pedestrians were targeted for use of force, you see higher levels of physical health problems, cardiovascular disease, metabolic issues, regards to obesity, in those neighborhoods than comparable white neighborhoods, where black, brown, and white pedestrians are treated the same.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, a great discussion. We’re going to have to end it there. I’d like to thank my guests, Alyasah Ali Sewell, associate professor of sociology at Emory University, Sam Walker, professor emeritus in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the University of Omaha in Nebraska. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

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About Danya AbdelHameid

Danya AbdelHameid is Science Friday’s fall 2019 narrative podcasting intern. She’s most interested in telling stories about the complex, messy ways that science interacts with culture, history, and society, but she’s really into glaciers and ice sheets, too.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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