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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia Study Finds Stop-and-Frisk Searches Take a Mental Health Toll

Research conducted at Columbia University shows that New York City’s stop-and-frisk policing might have a significantly negative effect on the mental health of those who are stopped. Respondents to a population-based telephone survey who reported more contact with the police, particularly intrusive encounters, also reported higher levels of anxiety and trauma. Symptoms were significantly related to the number of times stopped and to how they perceived the critical encounter was conducted.

Findings are published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers surveyed a racially, ethnically, and geographically representative sample of 1,261 men ages 18 to 26 during a six-month period in 2012 and 2013. Eighty-five percent of the men who participated said police had stopped them in their lifetime; 46 percent reporting being stopped in the last year. Although 80 percent of respondents reported being stopped 10 times or fewer, more than 5 percent of respondents reported being stopped more than 25 times, and 1 percent of respondents reported more than 100 stops.

“Our findings suggest that any benefits achieved by aggressive proactive policing tactics may be offset by serious costs to individual and community health,” says Dr. Bruce Link, professor of epidemiology and professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and senior author.

Encounters with the police could include bag searches, frisks or pat downs, use of force, getting threatened with a weapon, or arrest. Twenty-five percent of people who took part in the survey said they experienced such encounters. Overall, New York City recorded four million stops from 2004 to 2012, the vast majority of them leading to no convictions. Approximately half of the recorded stops involved physical contact, while about 20 percent involved “use of force,” such as getting slammed against walls or thrown to the ground.

While the researchers acknowledge the search tactics may have a public health advantage, they conclude there is a significant public health risk as well. “Although proactive policing practices target high-crime, disadvantaged neighborhoods, affecting individuals already facing severe socioeconomic disadvantage, our findings suggest that young men stopped by the police face a parallel but hidden disadvantage: compromised mental health,” the authors said.

Co-authors are Dr. Amanda Geller, a former sociomedical sciences faculty at the Mailman School; Dr. Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of epidemiology and law at Columbia; and Dr. Tom Tyler, a professor of law at Yale Law School.

The research was supported by the Public Health Law Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute of Justice, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.