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Abstract

n 2000, the Supreme Court held in Illinois v. Wardlow that a suspect’s presence in a “high-crime area” is relevant in determining whether an officer has reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigative stop. Despite the importance of the decision, the Court provided no guidance about what that standard means, and over fifteen years later, we still have no idea how police officers understand and apply it in practice. This Article conducts the first empirical analysis of Wardlow by examining data on over two million investigative stops conducted by the New York Police Department from 2007 to 2012.

Our results suggest that Wardlow may have been wrongly decided. Specifically, we find evidence that officers often assess whether areas are high crime using a very broad geographic lens; that they call almost every block in the city high crime; that their assessments of whether an area is high crime are nearly uncorrelated with actual crime rates; that the suspect’s race predicts whether an officer calls an area high crime as well as the actual crime rate; that the racial composition of the area and the identity of the officer are stronger predictors of whether an officer calls an area high crime than the crime rate itself; and that stops are less or as likely to result in the detection of contraband when an officer invokes high-crime area as a basis of a stop. We conclude with several policy proposals for courts, police departments, and scholars to help address these problems in the doctrine.

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Link to publisher version (DOI)

10.15779/Z388911R2Q