Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago

Professor Wesley G. Skogan

During the past 25 years, American policing moved from a focus on responding to crimes in progress or (more often) already committed toward proactive strategies for preventing or deterring future crimes from occurring in the first place. Rather than cleaning up in the aftermath of crime, police have taken responsibility for its occurrence. This seemed to work for a while, as crime declined during the 1990s, but in the mid-2000s violent crime began to grow. Police now had responsibility for crime, and this led almost inevitably to more heavily targeted and aggressive police tactics.

While cops have always made stops, it is important to understand stop & frisk as an organizational strategy for responding to violent crime. As a strategy rather than an ad hoc tactic stop & frisk takes on additional features. Stops are not just reactions to events or people. Officers set out on patrol with instructions to conduct them. They need to record them and “make their numbers” to keep their bosses happy. Their managers monitor the numbers, and they frequently call for even more stops. District commanders and watch supervisors insist on stops being made because they, in turn, are being held accountable by headquarters. The numbers generated by various units will be used to identify those that do not hit their informal quotas, and there can be consequences for any shortfalls. In cities (like Chicago) employing CompStat-style, metrics-driven management this could include losing their job. From headquarters, top executives describe what they are doing as “vital to crime prevention” when they report to their political overseers. Chicago’s police leaders serve at the pleasure of the mayor, so they need their mayors to trust what they are doing – and trust can be fragile in city politics. Hotly competitive media can make life miserable for public officials over “the crime issue,” so when addressing the public, police interpret their numbers as evidence they are doing their utmost to combat crime. This resonates with the many segments of society that have bought into the idea that routine policing must be proactive, not just reactive. In the era of stop & frisk, just demonstrating high-volume activity has become a popular performance measure.

My new book, Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago, examines the origins and practice of stop & frisk in a great American city. Its main message is that policing strategies involve intensely political and social concerns. A description of their legal and operational features does not address most of the core issues they raise. Even among proactive policing tactics stop & frisk is distinctive because there are no complaining victims, no named suspects, no advance confirmation that any offense has even occurred, and precious few reasons to make “pretextual” stops based on some observed infraction like a misfunctioning turn signal. Rather, officers must somehow spot enough “reasonably suspicious” people who happen to be passing by to keep their lieutenant happy. Who is stopped, where, and how they are treated, thus is heavily determined by organizational policies and informal practices.

For almost 15 years Chicago was a showcase for stop & frisk. As the book details, after steadily gaining traction during the 2000s, in 2014 Chicago police stopped, questioned, and often frisked more than 718,000 people. That was a big number for a city of 2.7 million. It was more than three times the stop rate in the place best known for its aggressive stop & frisk policy, New York City. A survey of the city found that during 2014–2015 fully 22 percent of all adults reported being caught up in a stop & frisk. African Americans and Hispanics withstood the worst of these often aggressive yet unwarranted stops, leading to serious equity issues. They described more frequent stops, and they were more often searched, handcuffed, and subjected to the use of force when they were stopped—and then released.  Assessing the quality of stops using as a standard the procedural justice approaches to managing them that Chicago officers had been trained in, African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to think they were treated disrespectfully and unfairly by the police, that officers paid little attention to their side of the story when they tried to express it, and that their situation was not addressed in a factual and neutral manner. In turn, the experiences of Chicagoans at the hands of the police affected their trust in the police as an institution and as a local resource for addressing neighbourhood problems. Good practice helped grow trust, bad practice undermined it, and bad practice was particularly concentrated in African American neighbourhoods. 

In turn, from the point of view of officers the public was one of their biggest problems. A survey conducted at the district stations found they thought city residents did not understand them or their job, and mostly could not be trusted. They were disdainful of community institutions providing public and democratic oversight of the police. The most important determinant of their views was where they worked. Officers of all races saw their views of right and wrong aligned with residents of largely White neighbourhoods. Community context also affected whether officers felt acting in accordance with the principles of procedural justice could work. Those working in high intensity stop & frisk beats felt overworked and more at risk and perceived themselves as most estranged from the community.

Then, during the waning months of 2015, stop & frisk in Chicago collapsed. The number of stops dropped by 85 percent in two months and stayed down for several years. The collapse came on the heels of an enormous scandal that led to a cascade of political events. The chief of police was driven from office, followed quickly by the head of the city’s civilian police review agency. Her political party abandoned the local prosecutor, who was defeated for re-nomination by a reformer just two months later. Investigations of the Chicago police were launched in short order by an independent local commission and by the U.S. Justice Department. The tsunami of press coverage all of this generated put intense pressure on local leaders regarding police reform. The crisis was reflected in local opinion polls documenting new and widespread scepticism of the mayor and the police among White voters, as well as a continued erosion of support among African American and Hispanic Chicagoans. At the same moment, earlier agreements between the city and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, plus new rules regulating stop & frisk from the Illinois State Legislature, came into effect. These imposed further restrictions on local policing practices. In the face of all this, stop & frisk virtually disappeared.

What immediately followed was the third-largest violent crime surge in Chicago’s modern history. Many observers saw this as a test of what happens in the face of “de-policing,” or when officers “go fetal” or otherwise surrender in the face of withering criticism by the media and community leaders. To examine this, the book offers a detailed statistical analysis of the impact of stop & frisk on shootings and killings. This involved developing measures of many other factors that could have been competing to drive violence both up and down. Large and complex cities like Chicago have many moving parts and stop & frisk is just one of them. The chapter comes to the uncomfortable-for-some conclusion that stops had deterrent value, but (uncomfortable for others) only a moderate impact. The effects of stop & frisk lay well within the range of other proactive policing interventions that have been carefully and positively evaluated. This is a range of impact in which possible tradeoffs among proven policing strategies can be debated, and where other important social and political values could be accommodated.

Along the way this analysis also documented that little “de-policing” actually took place. There was little change on many measures of the high-volume things that Chicago police do. The principal consequence of the collapse of stop & frisk was an enormous increase in traffic stops, which quickly totalled almost 700,000 per year. A tactical shift, they were conducted in the same places and involved the same targets as stop & frisk. The proper question to have asked was, “what are officers doing if they are not doing stop & frisk?”  

Wesley G. Skogan is Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University. Email:

One thought on “Stop & Frisk and the Politics of Crime in Chicago

  1. Very topical and interesting read. I look forward to reading the book. The issue of stop/Fisk (US) and Stop/Search (UK) remain unpopular, contentious but also an eternal problem; making this such a crucial area of study. The evidence that the street stops declined but traffic stops increased is very interesting. There is need to avoid making simple correlations between crime and stops, this subject is far too complex. I will be using this study in our teaching at the University of Portsmouth, as we compare Stops between the UK/US, the broader operational, strategic , community and academic issues are the same, it’s the demographic and risk factors that differ.

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