The Annals of Applied Statistics

Precinct or prejudice? Understanding racial disparities in New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy

Sharad Goel, Justin M. Rao, and Ravi Shroff

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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.

Article information

Ann. Appl. Stat. Volume 10, Number 1 (2016), 365-394.

Received: January 2015
Revised: September 2015
First available in Project Euclid: 25 March 2016

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Criminology discrimination racial profiling risk assessment Fourth Amendment


Goel, Sharad; Rao, Justin M.; Shroff, Ravi. Precinct or prejudice? Understanding racial disparities in New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy. Ann. Appl. Stat. 10 (2016), no. 1, 365--394. doi:10.1214/15-AOAS897.

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