A new study released on October 16 in the American Journal of Public Health finds that young men in New York City who report they’ve been stopped and questioned by police are also reporting higher levels of trauma and stress associated with those experiences, particularly when they report that the encounters were intrusive.
“Our findings suggest that proactive policing tactics have the potential to negatively impact the relationship between the community and police, as well as the mental health and well-being of community members,” said lead author Amanda Geller, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor at New York University.
The study finds that men who experienced the most intrusive encounters — those interactions that were aggressive, deemed unfair, or involved racially-charged language — also experienced the most significant symptoms, but the researchers also report stress, trauma and anxiety in men who had experienced even minimal interactions with the police.
Study participants responded to surveys that gathered information about their interaction with police and were asked to share symptoms of anxiety and trauma related to those encounters.
“Most of the police encounters our respondents described didn’t include an arrest or incarceration, yet they still reported associated mental health symptoms,” Geller explained. “This tells us that even the low levels of interaction that many urban residents experience may have consequences.”
The study also finds disparities across race: black respondents experienced trauma symptoms at a higher frequency than other races.
This is the first study to analyze the mental health impact of proactive policing tactics like New York’s “stop and frisk” policy by systematically surveying the population most impacted — young men.
The study compared self-reported trauma and anxiety levels among 18- to 26-year-old men in New York City who had been stopped by the police with those who had not been stopped. The researchers interviewed 1,261 young men representing 37 neighborhoods across the city from September 2012 to March 2013.
Of the 1,261 respondents, 85 percent had been stopped at least once in their lifetime, and 46 percent had been stopped in the past year.
While this study cannot confirm that the stops directly caused these symptoms, the findings are consistent with research that suggests that any social benefit achieved through proactive policing, such as improved public safety and feelings of security, may be offset by costs to individual and community health.
“Stop and frisk” refers to a policing tactic (also known as Terry stops) in which officers actively stop citizens to ask about recent or potential criminal activity or disrupt situations where the officer feels “crime is afoot.”
Court cases, such as the 2013 decision of Floyd v. City of New York, have shown that the racial disparities in stop activity exceeded those that local crime rates and conditions would suggest are appropriate – and that many of the stops were documented with inadequate justification of suspicion.
Stop and frisk tactics have been used in many large cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. The New York City Police Department recorded more than 4 million such stops between 2004 and 2012.