Evanston using 'investigative stops' to fight crime

August 20, 2013 9:18:54 PM PDT
A federal judge's recent slap down of the New York City Police Department's 'stop and frisk' policy has renewed debate about a practice seen by some as a great crime-fighting tool, and by others as an invitation to racial profiling.

In the midst of that debate, the Better Government Association (BGA) has found north suburban Evanston is more aggressively pushing its own version of stop and frisk.

Stop and frisk is a tactic that police departments have used for years, and it has many variations. The BGA set out recently to get an understanding of how local departments employ the practice. Not surprisingly, the BGA found that most of the departments it polled were not keen on talking specifics, with one notable exception: Evanston, which is promoting "the investigative stop."

Detectives Phil Lang and Mike Geyer are getting set to patrol Beat 77. Their eyes are trained - largely on people they know from previous arrests. They see one such young man who commits a traffic violation. One officer says they know the man is "involved in narcotics -- it's documented, so we're going to go ahead and initiate a stop."

Geyer notices the smell of pot in the car, and finds a marijuana pipe on the console. Reasonable suspicion now becomes probable cause. There is a pat-down. A search of the car does not produce any drugs. The detectives opt not to cite the driver.

Evanston police refer to this as an investigative stop. It is based on an officer's reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred, or is about to occur. The tactic is not new, but Evanston now is making greater use of it.

"Basically, all it is we're doing is a little bit more of it and it's just a little more focused into an area because of some problems that we've had," said Evanston Police Commander Jay Parrott.

Those problems were two early summer middle-of-the-day shootings outside a community center and a school that police felt had to be addressed. Last month, during an investigative stop, detectives recovered a loaded revolver from a 16-year-old on a bike. It is too early for a statistical measure, but police believe the practice of more aggressive stops is working.

"Our presence being out here, visible, kind of acts as a deterrent and reduces the amount of violent crime or crime in general," said Geyer.

"From a good government standpoint, you have to give the Evanston police some credit because they came out and said, we're going to do it, and they've explained it to the community, and they're standing by it," said Bob Reed of the BGA.

The BGA review found that while a number of local police departments acknowledge using variations of stop and frisk, few are branding it like Evanston.

"That's great, but the real trick will be in the execution: How well do they do it? How good is the record keeping? What will be the community reaction as this process goes on even longer?" said Reed.

"There's a lot of data and research out there that shows that it hasn't been effective," said University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman, who argues that stop and frisk tactics too often violate constitutional protections; that however well-intentioned, targeted policing frequently leads to racial profiling, and his studies suggest it breeds exactly what police do not want: alienation; no snitch.

"Young people who feel like: we're being targeted, we're being treated like criminals, don't trust police -- and you need that trust," said Futterman.

"No matter for any reason we stop somebody, we treat everyone the same; race is not an issue for us," said Detective Lang.

Part of selling this to the public means that when police make an investigative stop, they explain it to the person they are stopping, and then to a public that will want to see what the records reveal.

"We have to get the public involved, and the only way to get the public involved is to share with them how we do it," said Parrott.

Like any police tactic, this one is judged by its ability to reduce crime, but there are other aspects like public trust that are not as easily measured. That is why, as the BGA's Reed points out, and the judge in the New York City case ruled, detailed recordkeeping and robust public monitoring is critical. Evanston police say they are fully on board with that and believe it will work, and that it passes constitutional muster.


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