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Contacts between Police and the Public: Findings from the 1999 National Survey

SUNDAY, March, 11, 2001      202/307-0784


Half of all Contacts with Law Enforcement Officers are in Traffic Stops

WASHINGTON, D.C. - An estimated 43.8 million people 16 years old or older, or about 21 percent of the population of that age, had contact with the police during 1999, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. The report on police- public contact noted that more than half of these face- to-face interactions were in traffic stops.

In the bureau's most comprehensive analysis of citizen-police contact, the analysis found that less than 1 percent of these contacts resulted in police force or threat of force. An estimated 20 percent of such incidents involved only the threat to use force. Approximately 422,000 people 16 years old and older were estimated to have had contact with police in which force or the threat of force was used during 1999.

Among blacks and Hispanics, 2 percent reported force or threatened force, compared to just under 1 percent among whites. Fifty-seven percent of those involved in a police force situation reported that they had argued, disobeyed or resisted or had been drinking or using drugs at the time.

During 1999 an estimated 10 percent of all licensed drivers, including almost 20 percent of teenage drivers, were pulled over by law enforcement officers. Eighty-four percent of the drivers said they were stopped for a legitimate reason, and 90 percent said the police officers had behaved properly during the stop.

Interaction with the police arose for the following reasons in percentages:

Motor vehicle stop   52 %*
To report a crime   19  
To ask for assistance   12  
To report a neighborhood problem   9  
Involved in a traffic accident   8  
Witnessed a traffic accident   5  
Witnessed a crime   3  
Questioned as a crime suspect   3  
Attended a crime prevention meeting   1  
*Includes drivers and passengers. Total sums to more than 100 percent because some people cited more than one reason for the contact.

An estimated 51 percent of the stopped drivers said they had been speeding, 24 percent cited reckless driving, an illegal turn, going through a red light, tailgating or some other traffic violation. An estimated 11 percent said the police stopped them because of a burned out headlight, a loud muffler or some other vehicular defect. Nine percent said they were stopped so police could check their registration, insurance coverage, driver's license or some other record. Two percent said they were stopped in a roadside check for drunk drivers, and another 2 percent said police suspected them of something.

Of the estimated 19.3 million stopped drivers in 1999, police issued tickets to 54 percent. Among licensed drivers, an estimated 10 percent of whites, 12 percent of blacks and 9 percent of Hispanics were pulled over by police at least once during 1999. In 7 percent of the stops the driver or vehicle were searched. Black and Hispanic motorists (11 percent each) were more likely than whites (5 percent) to be physically searched or have their vehicles searched. In almost 90 percent of such searches the police found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Three percent of the stops involved the police using handcuffs. In 0.7 percent of the stops the surveyors were told that force was used, and in 0.5 percent the survey respondents alleged that excessive force was used.

The survey was carried out during the last six months of 1999 among a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents aged 16 and older. More than 80,000 people took part. Sampling and interviewing was conducted for BJS by the Bureau of the Census.

The report, "Contacts between Police and the Public--Findings from the 1999 National Survey" (NCJ- 184957), was prepared by BJS statisticians Patrick A. Langan, Lawrence A. Greenfeld, Steven K. Smith, David J. Levin and Matthew Durose. Single copies may be obtained from the BJS fax-on-demand system by dialing 301/519-5550, listening to the complete menu and selecting document number 229. Or call the BJS clearinghouse number: 1-800-851-3420. Fax orders for mail delivery to 410/792-4358. The BJS Internet site is:


Additional criminal justice materials can be obtained from the Office of Justice Programs homepage at: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov

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BJS01035 (L)
After hours contact: Stu Smith at 301/983-9354

Date Published: March 11, 2001