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Police Suspicion and Discretionary Decisionmaking During Citizen Stops

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 43 Issue: 2 Dated: May 2005 Pages: 407-434
Date Published
May 2005
28 pages

This study examined whether racial, demographic, and situational variables are linked to types of police suspicion and the ancillary police decision to stop and question suspects.


The study hypothesized that minority individuals would more likely be viewed suspiciously by police without regard to any suspicious behavior and that minority status would significantly influence the police decision to stop and question a person. Researchers observed and debriefed police officers in Savannah, GA, during April through November 2002. Randomly selected officers were observed on 132 8-hour shifts, during which 174 incidents of stops based on police suspicion were made. Factors in police suspicions were divided into behavioral and nonbehavioral categories. Behavioral criteria included specific actions by citizens that were either illegal or were interpreted by an officer to be suspicious. Nonbehavioral criteria included an individual's appearance, when and where the individual was observed by an officer, and descriptive information about a person suspected of a crime. The latter factor was considered nonbehavioral because it is related to a person's appearance linked to witnesses' descriptions of a suspect at a previous crime scene and not his/her behavior when currently observed by an officer. The study identified 59 police observations (34 percent) that involved nonbehavioral suspicions. Of all incidents of suspicion, whether behavioral or nonbehavioral, 59 percent (n=103) involved stopping the suspect. The findings did show that being a member of a minority group was a significant nonbehavioral factor in officers' forming of suspicion about an observed person; however, minority status was not a significant factor in an officer's decision to stop and question a person. This suggests that although officers may form a suspicion about an observed person based on nonbehavioral factors, they are constrained to make stops only when they believe a behavioral factor justifies intervention with a stop. 3 tables and 71 references

Date Published: May 1, 2005