Raising ’reasonable suspicions’ about stop-and-frisk policies

By showing how the controversial crime-fighting strategy is unevenly employed in marginalized neighborhoods, graduate student Rachel Lautenschlager hopes to propel law enforcement reforms.

In just two recent years, police officers in nine cities across the nation-from Boston to San Francisco-stopped and frisked pedestrians about 700,000 times, presumably relying on a 51-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows police to make such stops if they have a "reasonable suspicion” the person committed a crime.

At least that’s Rachel Lautenschlager’s preliminary estimate from the reams of data the University of Miami graduate student has collected to identify and map inequities associated with the ubiquitous crime-fighting strategy that has been criticized for disproportionately targeting poor blacks and Latinos-and breeding resentment and fear of law enforcement in marginalized neighborhoods.  

A Ph.D. candidate in sociology and criminology who is studying racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, Lautenschlager was recently awarded a dissertation improvement grant from the National Science Foundation’s Law and Social Sciences Program to help her identify the neighborhood characteristics and social processes associated with what she calls "surveillance hotspots” in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

"Surveillance hotspots are those areas that experience exceptionally high concentrations of stop-and-frisk activity, and they tend to be in poor neighborhoods of color and sometimes involve the detainment of people who are never arrested,” said Lautenschlager, who chose cities that collect and make their stop-and-frisk data available. "We want police agencies to engage in policies that generate trust in police, but I think it’s safe to assume that programs like stop and frisk that tend to be disproportionately employed in neighborhoods of color do not engender trust.”

But to propose alternatives more conducive to developing positive community relationships, Lautenschlager needs evidence, not assumptions. Which is why she spent last week in Colorado attending a workshop on spatial statistics. Unlike traditional statistics, spatial statistics incorporate geographic data, such as longitude and latitude, that enable researchers to plot the distributions, patterns, processes, and relationships of any number of variables. The workshop, which her grant paid for, was offered by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan, which collects and maintains a vast archive of data for social science research for member institutions, including UM.

"Even though I already have some level of proficiency in spatial modeling, the workshop will really help me bring my analyses to the next level and ensure the validity of what I’m doing,” said Lautenschlager, who plans to use spatial modeling to paint digital pictures of her data. "When you take your variables and put them on a map sometimes you see patterns you wouldn’t otherwise see.”

As an undergraduate at George Washington University, Lautenschlager majored in Judaic studies and never took any sociology or criminology courses. Neither was she familiar with spatial statistics. But her classes in Jewish-American history opened her eyes to how the legal system can marginalize ethnic minorities, and redirected her scholarly interests and career path. Two sensational and controversial criminal cases against Jewish Americans-that of Leo Frank and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg-particularly stood out to Lautenschlager for the undercurrent of antisemitism that propelled their outcomes.  

The superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1913 rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl who was strangled in the factory. But the evidence against him was so thin-it actually pointed to a janitor-the governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s sentence to life, inciting the mob that kidnapped him from prison, and lynched him.

The evidence against the Rosenbergs, who were convicted in 1953 of sharing American atomic secrets with the Soviet Union , was far less questionable, but the couple remains the only American spies executed outside of wartime.

"What sort of shocked me was how blatant the antisemitism was in both cases,” Lautenschlager said. "There didn’t seem to be any attempt to hide it. That was the connection I made to contemporary social issues and how I ended up studying criminology.”

In addition to identifying the neighborhood characteristics most associated with heightened levels of search-and-frisk activities, Lautenschlager plans to examine if and how the law perpetuates geographic, ethnic, racial, and class inequities in the crime-fighting strategy sanctioned by the Supreme Court’s watershed ruling in Terry v. Ohio.  

In that 1968 decision, the high court found that an officer who recovered a revolver after stopping and patting down three suspects based on his "articulable reasonable suspicion” that the men were about to commit a crime did not violate the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant and "probable cause.”  

O ther, more recent court decisions, Lautenschlager said, have allowed police officers to more easily meet the lesser legal standard of "reasonable suspicion” in marginal neighborhoods, creating what some legal scholars call a two-tiered system that varies from neighborhood to neighborhood.

"The courts have held that police officers don’t need as much evidence to establish reasonable suspicion in neighborhoods they perceive to be high-crime areas,” Lautenschlager said. "But it’s completely up to the officer to assess the neighborhood. There are no criteria. So the theory is that people who live in areas that are perceived to be high-crime are held to a different standard.”

Now that she’s returned from Colorado, Lautenschlager plans to spend a lot of time in Richter Library’s Digital Scholars Lab, where she is cleaning, filtering, and geo-coding the estimated 700,000 stop-and-frisk records from 2016 and 2017 that she collected from the nine cities. Then she’ll begin the painstaking process of analyzing the data and plotting it on visually understandable maps.  

"In the long run, I hope to share my findings with law enforcement agencies, especially the ones whose data I am analyzing, and collaborate on developing policies that are more prone to developing positive relationships with the communities they are working in,” she said.


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