Police Officer Behavior Research Paper

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In the 1950s, The American Bar Foundation sponsored a series of observational studies that spanned the criminal justice system. The researchers observed an astounding array of incompetence and corruption in criminal justice practices, due in part to the pervasive discretion inherent in the system. Discretion can be described as official action taken by criminal justice professionals based on their individual judgments. The American Bar Foundation’s ‘‘discovery’’ of discretion was particularly important in the field of policing, where it was generally recognized that the lowest level workers within police departments’ organizational hierarchies have the greatest amount of discretion over critical decisions. According to Samuel Walker, several factors account for the existence of pervasive police discretion: the ambiguous nature of criminal law, the working environment of police officers, and limited police resources. Researchers have attempted to explain how, when, and why criminal justice officials make discretionary decisions that affect the lives of citizens. Indeed, much of the research in policing has attempted to explain officers’ decision-making.

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Some people speculate that officers make decisions based on extralegal variables; that is, officers’ decision-making is based on factors that are not considered legitimate in a democratic society (e.g., suspects’ race, sex, age, etc.). In the 1990s, for example, some police agencies have been accused of using racial profiling policies (i.e., making decisions to conduct field interrogation and traffic stops based solely on a citizen’s race), which leads to important questions. Do police officers in our society make decisions based on legal or extralegal factors? How and why do police officers use their discretion? These are the questions that underlie nearly fifty years of police research. The findings from this body of research will be summarized in this research paper. Four specific categories of explanatory factors are identified, the relative explanatory power of these factors is described, and the research findings are summarized. The paper concludes with a description of the need for additional research to better understand how, when, and why police officers use their discretion.

Explaining Police Behavior

In general, police research has focused on explaining four particular types of police officer behavior: detection activities, service activities, the use of arrest/citations, and the use of force (Sherman, 1980). Detection activities include field interrogation and traffic stops, investigative techniques, etc. Service activities include mediating disputes, assisting citizens, and engaging in problem solving and community policing activities. Official police action is examined through the use of arrest or citations. It is through these actions that police invoke the criminal justice system and bring the power of the state to bear on individuals. Finally, police use of force, although statistically a rare event, has been extensively examined. In the 1960s and early 1970s, much of the research focused on examining the relationship between one predictor variable (e.g., suspects’ race) and one outcome variable (e.g., police use of arrest). As research advanced, however, more refined statistical techniques enabled researchers to examine the influence of multiple explanations of police behavior simultaneously.

The factors that explain police behavior have also been generally grouped in four categories: situational, individual, organizational. and community (Sherman; Riksheim and Chermak). Situational factors refer to the characteristics of police-citizen encounters that may influence how an officer acts during that situation. These situational factors include the characteristics of the suspect (e.g., race, sex, age, demeanor, etc.), characteristics of the victim (e.g., race, sex, age, relationship to the suspect, etc.), characteristics of the situation (e.g., location, number of bystanders present, etc.), and legal characteristics (e.g., presence and amount of evidence, seriousness of the offense, etc.). Individual factors refer to the characteristics of individual officers that may influence their behavior (e.g., officers’ sex, race, age, attitudes, education, training, etc.). Organizational factors include any characteristics of the police organization that might influence officer behavior (e.g., administrators’ preferences, formal and informal policies, departmental size, levels of supervision, etc.). Finally, researchers have also speculated that community factors (e.g., public expectations and preferences, crime rates, demographic characteristics, political characteristics, etc.) may influence officer decisionmaking. The research findings regarding the relative influence of specific factors over police behavior from each of these four groups (situational, individual, organizational, and community) are described below.

Situational/Legal Characteristics

Situational factors that explain police behavior can be subdivided into four categories: (1) suspect characteristics; (2) victim characteristics; (3) characteristics of the police-citizen encounter; and (4) legal characteristics. As a whole, situational characteristics—particularly legal characteristics—have a relatively strong influence over officer behavior.

Suspect Characteristics

Suspect characteristics are perhaps the most controversial potential influences over officer behavior. Do officers make decisions in whole or in part due to the sex, race, age, socioeconomic status, or demeanor of suspects? There has been a particularly strong focus in quantitative research to examine the effects of nonlegal variables on officer behavior. It has been reported that these nonlegal variables typically explain a relatively small portion of the variance in comparison to legally relevant variables, but they have been accorded a great deal of attention. The reason for that attention is that nonlegal variables should not influence the behavior of criminal justice agents if the U.S. system is to be considered legitimate, fair, and just.

Suspects’ Race/Ethnicity

Some minority groups allege that they are singled out by police. They argue that officers often make decisions— field interrogation stops, traffic stops, arrest, and use of force—based on racial considerations. This belief is so widespread among minority communities that the phenomenon has been labeled DWB or ‘‘driving while black.’’ A large body of research has accumulated that examines whether or not officers’ behavior is influenced by a suspect’s race. Collectively, these findings have been somewhat mixed based on the type of officer behavior that is examined.

Studies that have considered officers’ decision-making during detection activities (e.g., field interrogation stops, pat down searches, and traffic stops) have generally found that suspects’ race does have an influence over officer behavior. For example, the San Diego field interrogation study in the early 1970s reported that 66 percent of citizens stopped for questioning by police were African American and Mexican American males, but they only represent 30 percent of the local population. Likewise, a lawsuit filed in 1993 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the Maryland State Police cited evidence that 73 percent of drivers stopped by officers were African American even though they represent only 17 percent of all drivers (Wilkins v. Maryland State Police; see Walker). In 2000, internal documents from the New Jersey State Police (NJSP) indicated that officers were trained to identify potential drug traffickers based on race.

Disparities and discrimination in field interrogations are a major cause of tension between police and minority communities. While many officers believe aggressive field interrogations and traffic stops are legitimate, effective crimefighting tactics, they are perceived as harassment by some segments of the population. Aggressive anticrime tactics may result in the racial stereotyping of possible suspects, which is often reinforced by departmental policies. For example, the Christopher Commission in 1991 concluded that the aggressive style of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) constituted an attack on minorities and their communities.

Minority suspects are arrested at disproportional rates to their representation in the population. For example, African Americans represented 31 percent of all arrests, 38 percent of all index crime arrests, and 44 percent of all violent crime arrests, however, they represented just 12 percent of the U.S. population (Walker, Spohn, and DeLone, p. 88). While these figures certainly display disparity in arrest, the larger question is whether this disparity is based on race—that is, whether or not there is discrimination. Some studies utilizing data collected in the late 1970s reported that officers did make arrest decisions based, in part, on the suspect’s race (Smith and Visher; Robert Worden, 1989). Nevertheless, in their review of studies examining police behavior, Riksheim and Chermak concluded ‘‘utilizing a variety of data sets and examining various offenses, most of these studies found that race had no effect on police arrest decisions’’ (p. 365). Some have speculated that while suspects’ race does not have a direct influence over officers’ behavior, it may have an indirect effect operating through other factors such as suspects’ demeanor, offense seriousness, and the preference of the victim (Walker et al).

Although police use of force against suspects occurs relatively infrequently, researchers have studied the phenomenon extensively. This attention is most likely due to the severe implications the behavior has for individuals, communities, and the society at large. The use of excessive force—or brutality—by police officers is a source or great strain in police-community relations, particularly in minority communities. Widely publicized examples of police brutality in the 1990s—including the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the physical and sexual assault of Abner Louima in New York City, and the killing of Amadou Diallo, also in New York City—have led to a renewed police-community crisis similar to that experienced in the 1960s. Studies routinely show that minorities are overrepresented as suspects who have force used against them, and who are shot or killed by officers. Robert Worden’s (1996) analysis of 1977 data showed that police were more likely to use both reasonable and unreasonable force against black male suspects. Research conducted prior to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), which placed constitutional limits on the use of deadly force by police, concluded that officers were more likely to use force, particularly deadly force, against African American suspects (Fyfe). Changes in administrative policies guiding the use of deadly force, however, led to decreases in the use of deadly force. Specifically, adopting the defense-of-life rule significantly reduced the racial disparity in police shootings and reduced firearm discharges in both Memphis and New York City (Fyfe). Other data showed that the ratio of African Americans to whites who had deadly force used against them decreased from seven-to-one to three-to-one from 1970 to 1984. Current studies have reported mixed results regarding the influence of suspects’ race over police use of force (for review, see Riksheim and Chermak; Robert Worden, 1996).

Suspects’ Sex

Several theorists have speculated that female suspects are less likely to be arrested than male suspects because officers are more likely to act in a chivalrous manner by protecting women from criminal sanction (Visher). Research prior to 1980 did indicate that female suspects were less likely to be arrested compared to males (Sherman). A review of the more recent empirical research, however, concluded, ‘‘gender was not an important predictor of arrest’’ (Riksheim and Chermak, p. 365; also see Visher). Of the twenty-six empirical studies reviewed by these researchers, twenty-one reported no relationship between gender and arrest when other factors were controlled. Some research on the use of force, however, has reported that male suspects are at a slightly higher risk to have force used against them compared to female suspects (Robert Worden, 1996).

Other researchers have speculated that the chivalry hypothesis applied only to women who act in a stereotypically feminine manner. Those women who break this stereotype (by engaging in prostitution, or acting in a hostile or aggressive fashion, or simply because they are part of a minority group) are more likely to be arrested. As a result, hostile women, particularly hostile women of color, may be at increased risk of coercive police action relative to hostile male suspects. This hypothesis, however, was not supported when tested empirically (Visher; Engel, Sobol, and Worden).

Suspects’ Age

Although handling juvenile incidents is believed to be a special problem, researchers know very little about actual street interactions between police and juveniles. Research conducted in the 1960s suggests that officers are more likely to initiate contact with juveniles than with adults and that officers have a large amount of discretion during these encounters. This research also shows that taking no official action is the most likely outcome of encounters with juveniles. When arrest is used, it is more likely in situations that are more serious, when victims request arrest, and the juvenile suspect acts in a hostile manner toward police (Black and Reiss).

Much of the research that has empirically examined arrest and the use of force indicated that suspects’ age is not a significant predictor of police decision-making (Riksheim and Chermak). Findings from the most recent systematic observation data set—the Project on Policing Neighborhoods (1996–1997)—also indicated that suspects’ age is not a significant predictor of arrest (Engel and Silver).

Suspects’ Socioeconomic Status

Early qualitative studies suggested that suspects’ socioeconomic status had an influence over police behavior and bivariate results from studies prior to the 1980s consistently found that lower class suspects were more likely to be arrested (Sherman). Since an individual’s socioeconomic status is highly correlated with race in American society, multivariate statistical models are needed to disentangle this relationship. Multivariate studies have found that suspects’ level of wealth has no independent influence over officers’ decision to arrest (Engel and Silver). Another study has reported that the influence of suspects’ class is contingent upon officers’ attitudes toward community policing (Mastrofski, Worden, and Snipes). One of the few studies to consider the effect of suspects’ class over police use of force found that this variable had no influence after other factors were controlled in a statistical model (Friedrich). Collectively, the evidence regarding the influence of suspects’ socioeconomic status is best described as mixed.

Other Suspect Characteristics: Mental Status, Demeanor, Intoxication

Several other suspect characteristics—mental status, demeanor, and intoxication—have widely been considered strong predictors of police behavior. For each of these variables, however, recent studies have challenged conventional wisdom regarding their influence over officer behavior.

As a result of deinstitutionalization, police calls to incidents involving citizens with mental disorders have increased significantly, leading to increases in criminal justice processing of these citizens. It is unclear, however, how a suspect’s mental status influences police behavior. Few empirical studies have examined the relative probabilities of arrest for mentally ill versus nonmentally ill suspects. Teplin’s study of police discretion toward mentally ill citizens in Chicago found the probability of being arrested was approximately 20 percent higher for mentally ill suspects compared to non-mentally ill suspects. This study, however, reported bivariate relationships and did not adequately control for other factors that could influence police decisions to arrest. After controlling for other situational and legal factors known to influence police decisionmaking, Engel and Silver found that mentally disordered suspects were significantly less likely to be arrested. Police have a large amount of discretion available to them when deciding what course to take regarding mentally ill suspects. Observations of the police suggest that they are more likely to use informal means to handle situations involving mentally ill citizens. For example, officers often use ‘‘psychiatric first aid’’ as an alternative to hospitalization or arrest (Teplin).

A large body of research has indicated that suspects who acted in a hostile or disrespectful manner toward police were significantly more likely to be the recipients of coercive police actions. This body of research, however, was strongly criticized by David Klinger (1994) for not adequately controlling for the seriousness of the offense and for interpreting illegal offenses (for which suspects could be arrested) as displays of a disrespectful demeanor. After taking these criticisms into account, current research continues to show a strong relationship between suspect demeanor and officer behavior (Worden and Shepard). Suspects who act in a disrespectful or hostile manner toward police are significantly more likely to be arrested, issued citations, and have force used against them.

Suspects who are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs are also significantly more likely to be the recipients of coercive police actions. Research findings have consistently shown that intoxicated suspects are more likely to be stopped and questioned, arrested, issued citations, and have force used against them (Robert Worden, 1989; Riksheim and Chermak). Recent research, however, has suggested that the sobriety of a suspect does not have an independent effect on arrest when the sobriety and demeanor of a suspect are considered together (Engel et al.). This research suggested that intoxication itself does not lead to arrest but that intoxication combined with displays of disrespect place suspects in greater risk for coercive police action.

Victims’ Characteristics

The bulk of empirical research examining the influence of victims’ characteristics on police behavior have focused on the victims’ preference (or request) for an arrest, and the relationship between the victim and the suspect. Research findings have consistently reported that victim preference has a strong influence over officers’ decisions to arrest. If a victim requests that the offender be arrested, officers are more likely to arrest; conversely, if a victim requests that the offender not be arrested, officers are significantly less likely to arrest (Smith and Visher). Visher reported that female victims requesting arrest have a stronger influence over officer behavior than male victims who request arrest. In a recent study of police behavior, Mastrofski and colleagues reported that officers granted complainants’ requests for the most restrictive form of control in 70 percent of the incidents observed.

The relationship between the victim and the suspect has also consistently predicted officer behavior. Studies prior to the 1980s consistently reported a bivariate relationship between the victim-offender relationship and officer behavior; officers were more likely to arrest if the relationship was more distant (Sherman). Multivariate findings have confirmed these early findings. For example, Smith and Visher have found that if the victim and suspect are strangers, officers are significantly more likely to arrest the offender. Alternatively, if the victim and suspect are well-acquainted, officers are significantly less likely to arrest.

Only a few studies have considered the influence of individual characteristics of the victim. The majority of findings indicated that the complainants’ race had no influence over officers’ detection activities and decisions to arrest. For example, one study found that the race of domestic violence victims had no influence over police behavior in those disturbances (for review see Sherman; Riksheim and Chermak). Mastrofski and his colleagues reported that officers were significantly less likely to grant citizens’ requests to control another citizen when the complainant was disrespectful to the police, intoxicated, mentally disordered, or involved in a close relationship with the other citizen.

Characteristics of The Police-Citizen Encounter

Research regarding the influence of the characteristics of situations have produced mixed results. Research reviewed by Sherman showed that police were more likely to arrest suspects in situations where the police entered the encounter proactively (i.e., not in response to a citizen or dispatched request for service). More recent research, however, has shown that police entry does not have a significant influence over arrest behavior (Mastrofski et al., 1995; Engel and Silver). Likewise, the location of a policecitizen encounter as either public or private does not have an influence over police decisions to arrest or use force (Worden and Shepard; Engel et al.). Other factors, such as the presence of bystanders and the presence of additional officers, have been shown to increase police use of force, but not the use of arrest (Engel et al.). However, as noted by Riksheim and Chermak, ‘‘the influence of most situational characteristics on arrest behavior remains unresolved’’ (p. 365).

Legal Characteristics

Legal considerations appear to have the strongest and most consistent influence over police behaviors (i.e., detection activities, arrest/citations, and use of force). Legal factors include the seriousness of the offense, amount and type of evidence, injury of the victim, presence of a weapon, suspect’s prior record, and if the suspect is currently wanted for a prior offense. While researchers’ initial measures of legal variables were rather crude, more precise measures continue to show a strong relationship to police behavior. For example, offense seriousness was routinely measured as a dichotomous variable representing a felony or misdemeanor offense; however, this variable is measured as an ordinal scale to capture greater variation in levels of seriousness (Klinger, 1994).

Most studies of police arrest behavior have confirmed that legal factors have the strongest influence over police arrest decisions. Mastrofski and his colleagues (2000) reported that legal considerations (e.g., evidence of suspects’ and complainants’ wrongdoing, citizens’ requests for arrest) were the most influential factors explaining officers’ decisions to respond to citizens’ requests to control another citizen. Earlier work by Mastrofski and others (1995) showed that legal factors accounted for 70 percent of the explained variance in officers’ decisions to arrest—the majority of this explanatory power was from the strength of the evidence. Likewise, other studies have found that legal considerations strongly and consistently predict officers’ use of force (Robert Worden, 1996). Klinger also found that legal considerations had a stronger influence over police behavior than suspects’ demeanor, and concluded that researchers must make greater efforts to consider the influence of legal factors in their studies of arrest and other officer discretionary action.

To summarize, there is some evidence that particular types of citizens—racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African American males— are subject to differential treatment by police officers. Legal factors, however, play a much greater role in explaining officer behavior. Nevertheless, widely publicized incidents have accumulated over time and created a perception of systematic police harassment of minority citizens. As noted by Walker, this evidence, combined with citizens’ perceptions of discrimination and disparity, created a police-citizen relations crisis in the 1980s and 1990s.

Individual Characteristics of Officers

Individual explanations refer to the influence of police officers’ own characteristics over their behavior. In the 1960s, tensions between police and citizens exploded in the form of riots and civil disobedience (Walker). In response, a series of presidential commissions were ordered to investigate these issues. The most famous, the Kerner Commission, investigated the causes of the hundreds of disorders that had taken place in late 1960s. The Kerner Commission reported that there was deep hostility and distrust between minorities and the police. The report recommended the hiring of more minority officers and that police practices be changed significantly. As a direct result of the police-community crisis of the 1960s, police organizations sought to hire officers that were more representative of the communities they serve, including the hiring of more minorities and women. In addition, higher standards for recruitment combined with the educational opportunities provided through the LEAA (Law Enforcement Education Program) raised the education level of police officers from 20 percent of officers with a college degree in 1960, to 65 percent in 1988 (Walker, p. 37).

One of the assumptions of these reforms is that officers who are minorities, women, better educated, and better trained, will act differently than their white, male, less educated, less welltrained counterparts. Specifically it was assumed that: (1) minority officers will relate better to minority citizens; (2) female officers will be less aggressive and therefore less violent than male officers; (3) college-educated officers will be better able to deal with the complex demands of policing; and (4) increased officer training will better prepare officers for handling situations on the street. Research has attempted to determine if these assumptions are accurate. Contrary to expectations, with but a few exceptions, the bulk of the research suggests the behavior of officers who are female, minority, educated, and better trained is not significantly different from that of male, white, less educated, less well-trained officers.

Officer Gender

Since the 1970s, there has been a gradual increase in the number of female officers. By the mid-1990s, women represented about 13 percent of officers in large city departments (Walker). There have been many hypotheses suggested regarding the attitudes and behavior of females compared to male officers. Those in support of hiring more female officers argued that females would be less aggressive than male officers and better able to handle difficult situations verbally. Those opposed to hiring female officers suggested that female officers would not be able to handle aggressive situations and would ultimately create an officer safety problem. Furthermore, they argued that female officers would act more like social workers and not actively enforce the law.

Studies have shown that officers’ attitudes toward their role, their departments, and toward citizens do not differ between men and women (Alissa Worden, 1993). More recent investigations of officers’ attitudes toward community policing and problem solving policies, however, have shown that female officers have more positive attitudes toward citizens and community policing initiatives than do male officers (Skogan and Hartnett).

Despite some differences in attitudes, research findings confirm that there are only very slight differences in on-the-job behavior between the sexes. Studies of police officers in several agencies have revealed that female and male officers responded to similar calls for service and encountered similar proportions of problem citizens (e.g., citizens who are intoxicated, angry, violent, etc.). Only slight—and nonstatistically significant—differences existed in the proportion of arrest and citations issued by male and female officers (for review, see Walker).

Findings regarding officers’ use of deadly force, however, have been somewhat mixed. Studies have shown that male officers are involved in deadly force incidents more often than female officers, but female officers who are partnered with a male officer reacted similarly to their male partners when responding to violent confrontations (Walker). In addition, a study of police officers in Indianapolis Police Department and St. Petersburg Police Department during 1996–1997 found that male officers are more likely than female officers to respond positively to citizens’ requests to control another citizen (Mastrofski et al., 2000).

Officers’ Race

Since the reforms noted above in the 1970s, there has been a steady increase in minority officers. By 1993, African American officers were the majority in Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, while in Miami, Hispanic officers represent 48 percent of force and African Americans represent another 17 percent (Walker, 1999). Proponents of the reform effort suggested that minority officers would have a better rapport with minority citizens, would be less likely to discriminate against minority citizens in arrest or other police actions, and would be less likely to use force against suspects (particularly minority suspects). Again, however, few of these hypotheses have been supported by research. In general, research has found a strong difference in the attitudes of minority and white officers, but few differences in actual behavior and performance.

Research has found significant differences in the attitudes of minority and white officers toward citizens and community policing policies. For example, a survey of officers assigned to minority districts in New York City found that minority officers were more likely to have positive attitudes toward their assigned districts and citizens within those districts. In addition, Skogan and Hartnett found that minority officers had more positive attitudes toward citizens and community policing initiatives compared to white officers.

As with gender differences, however, differences in officers’ race do not translate into differences in behavior. While studies have shown that officers’ race has a weak influence on officers’ arrest behavior, the relationship is complex. Studies have shown that African American officers arrest African American suspects more frequently than white officers, however these differences may reflect more responsiveness to requests of African American victims (Walker). In addition, some research has shown that minority officers are more likely to use force on minority suspects than white officers. Research has also shown, however, that minority officers are more likely to be assigned to patrol neighborhoods that are predominantly minority. After controlling for differences in assigned patrol areas, differences in the arrest and use of force patterns between white and minority officers does not remain significant (Fyfe).

Officers’ Education

Reform efforts also called for an increase in the educational standards among police officers. Police reformers argued that officers with college degrees would be better able to deal with complexities of the job, more likely to use alternatives to arrest, and less likely to use force against citizens. Yet, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no strong evidence that officers with a college education behave differently than those without. A study of police behavior in twenty-four police departments in 1977 showed that officers with a college education were just as likely to arrest or use force against suspects as were officers without a college degree (Robert Worden, 1990). As with female and minority officers, however, officers with more education have more positive views toward citizens and community policing policies (Skogan and Hartnett). These attitudes, however, do not appear to translate into behavior.

Officers’ Attitudes

The theory that attitudes influence behavior is intuitively compelling. As Worden suggests, ‘‘to maintain that people act in ways that are inconsistent with their attitudes seems patently absurd’’ (1989, p. 670). Nevertheless, empirical findings suggest that police officer attitudes and behavior are only weakly correlated. Beginning with research in the 1960s, scholars have speculated about the influence of police officers’ attitudes on their behavior. For example, policing scholars described the ‘‘authoritarian police personality,’’ and often suggested that officers’ attitudes (e.g., cynicism) influenced their behavior.

Over time, this description of a monolithic police personality was replaced with more compelling descriptions of varying attitudes—and behaviors—among police officers. Attitudinal explanations of police behavior often took the form of typologies. For example, William Muir identified four different types of officers based on the relationship between two separate attitudinal dimensions. These types of officers were expected to vary not only in their attitudes, but also in their ‘‘styles’’ of policing—that is, Muir speculated that differences in officers’ attitudes led to differences in their behavior.

Most quantitative research on police behavior, however, has found only weak relationships between officers’ attitudes and their behavior. Mastrofski, Ritti, and Snipes found that officers’ attitudes, including their individual enforcement priorities, bore weak relationships to their patterns of DUI enforcement. In analyses of dispute resolution, traffic enforcement, and proactive patrol or ‘‘aggressiveness,’’ Worden (1989) found that officers’ attitudes also did not account for variations in their behavior. Only two quantitative studies have found a significant relationship between officers’ attitudes and their behavior. Mastrofski, Worden, and Snipes reported that officers with more positive attitudes toward community policing were significantly less likely to arrest suspects, and Mastrofski and colleagues (2000) found that officers with positive attitudes toward community policing were more likely to grant citizens’ requests to control another citizen. Nevertheless, this small body of quantitative research is consistent wit a much larger body of social-psychological research on attitude-behavior consistency, which has suggested the estimated relationships between attitudes and behavior are counterintuitively small.

To summarize, research findings suggest that officer characteristics have a very limited impact on their behavior. Yet, it is unclear if citizens alter their behavior based on officers’ characteristics. That is, research has addressed differences in officers’ behavior based on officers’ characteristics, but not changes in citizens’ behavior toward officers’ based on these characteristics. Without knowing this information, one cannot assess the true impact of reform efforts that have changed the look of American police.

Organizational Factors

One possible explanation for the findings that officers’ characteristics have very little impact on their behavior is that the recruitment, selection, and training processes screen out individuals with attitudes and characteristics that are inconsistent with the dominant values of police officers. A second possibility is that peer pressure to conform to organizational values and behaviors exerts a powerful influence. Individuals who begin with slightly different attitudes (and who may behave differently) are socialized into the attitudes and behavior of the group. As a result, rookie African American officers are socialized into thinking and acting like the other (predominately white) officers, and female officers adopt attitudes and behavior of the dominant male police culture. This explanation suggests that police socialization, subculture, and other organizational factors have a strong influence over officer behavior.

Police Subculture

Early qualitative research identified and described police subcultures in American police organizations. As described above, some researchers described the ‘‘police personality,’’ while others identified different individual policing styles. The existence of a subculture suggests that officers share a number of attitudes, values, and beliefs that separate them from other members of society. These attitudes, values, and beliefs are transmitted from one generation to the next through a process of socialization. Van Maanen has described the recruitment, training, and on-the-street experiences of new patrol officers that socialize them into the police subculture. These officers develop a ‘‘working personality’’ or police view of the world. This view is often an ‘‘us versus them’’ orientation that allows officers to identify themselves as different from citizens. The ethos of police culture has been described as including bravery, autonomy, secrecy, isolation, and solidarity (Reuss-Ianni and Ianni). It has been suggested that multiple and competing subcultures exist in a single department, that subcultures differ across departments, and that officers’ behaviors are influenced by socialization processes and police subcultures (Reuss-Ianni and Ianni; Van Maanen). These propositions, however, have not been supported with systematic empirical research.

Structural Characteristics: Department Size/ Levels of Bureaucratization

Research from observational studies and survey research have reported that officers from smaller departments tend to initiate more traffic stops and were more likely to arrest suspects compared to officers in larger departments (Mastrofski, Ritti, and Hoffmaster). Other research, however, reported that department size had no effect on arrest behavior (Liska and Chamlin). Examining police behavior across twenty-four different departments, researchers found that officers in more bureaucratized departments were more likely to arrest suspects and use force against them (Smith and Klein, 1983; Robert Worden, 1996). Crank has also reported that officers in more bureaucratized departments in both urban and rural areas were more likely to arrest.

Policing Strategies and Tactics

There has been great debate over the effectiveness of innovative policing strategies and tactics. It has generally been acknowledged that changes in patrol officers’ behavior are necessary for the successful implementation of any new policing strategy. Several examinations of the use of increased police personnel focused on specific target areas or offenders (i.e., policing ‘‘hot spots,’’ or ‘‘crackdowns’’) have reported that officers are significantly more likely to arrest in these areas during periods of intensive, aggressive enforcement (Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger). As noted by Walker, these policies influence arrest rates in the short term, but often do not have a long-term effect.

Debate over the effectiveness of community policing has led to recent examinations of the behavior of community policing officers compared to regular beat officers. Parks and others reported that community policing officers in Indianapolis and St. Petersburg spent less time interacting with citizens—particularly problem citizens— compared to beat officers. Preliminary findings from the research collected in 1998 in Cincinnati suggests that officer assignment (as a community policing or beat officer) does not have a direct influence on arrest decision-making, however it appears there are some different decisionmaking processes being employed. More research is needed in this area before any firm conclusions can be reached regarding the influence of community policing policies over officer behavior.

Formal and Informal Policies

Formal policies refer to the rules and regulations of departments that are written by administrators and placed on officers. Some examples of formal policies that have been thought to influence police behavior include domestic violence (mandatory arrest) policies, use of force policies, and policies regulating the use of high-speed pursuits. Research has shown that some formal policies do have a significant effect on police behavior. For example, as previously noted, changes in use of force policies from the fleeing felon standard to defense-of-life policies have been shown to reduce the numbers of police shootings. Generally, formal policies are more likely to influence police behavior if they are clearly communicated and enforced by administrators (Walker).

Informal policies or guidelines are not specifically written, but are nonetheless understood by officers within the department. Some examples of informal policies that may affect police behavior are those regarding the policing of juveniles, minorities, the homeless, and traffic violators. Little empirical research has examined the influence of formal and informal policies over police behavior. Mastrofski, Ritti, and Snipes reported that officers’ perceptions of the DUI enforcement preferences of their supervisors and administrators did not significantly predict arrest behavior.

Department Styles

In 1968, James Q. Wilson published his now classic work, Varieties of Police Behavior, which argued that the six police departments studied differed greatly in their policing styles. Specifically, he suggested that three distinct policing styles existed: watchman, legalistic, and service. In watchman style departments, officers treated order maintenance rather than law enforcement as their primary function. Officers ignored many common minor violations, especially traffic and juvenile offenses, and would also tolerate a certain amount of vice and gambling. As a result of handling situations more informally, officers were more likely to use force rather than arrest, and perhaps more likely to engage in corruption. In contrast, legalistic departments emphasized law enforcement over order maintenance. Officers were expected to issue large numbers of traffic tickets, detain and arrest a high proportion of juvenile offenders, make large numbers of misdemeanor arrests, and act vigorously against illicit enterprises.

Since police handled situations formally, they produced larger numbers of arrests and citations than officers in departments with other styles. Service style departments emphasized providing service to their communities by handling all citizen requests (unlike the watchman style), but were less likely to respond with an arrest or otherwise formal sanction (unlike the legalistic style). Officers in service departments were expected to have good community relations, aggressively handling all serious crime, while informally handling less serious crime.

There has been little empirical testing of Wilson’s propositions regarding the different styles of police departments and their influence over officer behavior. In empirical examination of police behavior in twenty-four police agencies, Smith and Klein reported that officers in more legalistic departments were significantly more likely to arrest.


Many have speculated about the potential influence field supervision has over subordinate behavior. Although most scholars and practitioners agree that one role of police field supervisors is to control the behavior of their officers, the degree of control that supervisors actually have continues to be a matter of debate. Most of the empirical research exploring the influence of supervision over patrol behavior has focused on three general types of behavior: the frequency and duration of encounters with citizens, patrol officer discretionary decisionmaking toward citizens, including decisions to arrest or issue tickets, and officer misbehavior, including work shirking and departmental violations (for review, see Engel). The findings from this body of literature have been mixed, although studies that have reported a significant relationship between field supervision and officer behavior have found that the relationship is relatively weak. In a critique of this literature, Engel notes that the research lacked rigorous methodological designs, advanced statistical techniques, and valid measures of supervision. This research showed that particular supervisory styles did significantly influence patrol officers’ use of force and engagement in problem solving activities.

To summarize, the body of research examining the effects of organizational factors over police behavior is not substantial, despite being a potential source of great explanatory power. Riksheim and Chermak have characterized the limited findings on organizational level variables as encouraging, but clearly more research needs to be conducted in this area.

Community Factors

In Riksheim and Chermak’s review of the literature on police behavior, they note that ‘‘arrest is the only area of police behavior that has generated a substantial number of findings on the influence of community-level variables’’ (p. 369). Community level factors include political variables (e.g., measures of political context, type and strength of local governments, constituents’ political views, etc.), economic variables (e.g., measures of wealth and poverty, unemployment, female-headed households, etc.), and demographic variables (e.g., aggregate measures of age, race, cultural heterogeneity, etc.). Police have been heavily criticized within minority communities for providing a perceived different level of enforcement in their neighborhoods.

The influence of political environments over police behavior has been infrequently tested and the limited empirical evidence available has been mixed. For example, a city-manager type government increased the likelihood of arrest for some types of offenses arid not others (Langworthy). Economic and demographic variables are highly correlated. Some studies have reported that aggregate level economic and demographic variables do have a significant influence over police behavior, however the findings are somewhat mixed. For example, while Liska and Chamlin found that the percentage of nonwhite residents significantly increased the arrest rate, Crank reported different results based on the measure of cultural heterogeneity used. Other research has also reported that neighborhood crime rates did not have an effect on arrest. A recent study, however, found a relationship between police killings and racial and economic inequality, density, and overcrowding (Jacobs and O’Brien 1998).

Klinger (1997) has proposed a theory to explain how the levels of crime in communities affect police behavior. He suggested that police will respond more punitively (or with more ‘‘vigor’’) toward less serious crimes in lower crime rate districts compared to higher crime rate districts. That is, Klinger proposed that with the exception of very serious offenses, as district-level rates of crime increase, officers are less likely to arrest. This theory has not been empirically tested. While recent increased attention toward community-level explanations of police behavior is encouraging, this body of research needs to be further developed and adequately tested.


It is clear that much effort has been devoted to attempts to explain police behavior. Since the 1950s, these efforts have evolved from research that was primarily qualitative in nature to current research that utilizes more complicated methodologies and analyses. This latter research has given scholars the tools to thoroughly explore police behavior by enabling comparisons that analyze characteristics of each observed police-citizen encounter. The four broad areas of factors that have been examined are situational/ legal characteristics (e.g., suspect, victim, police encounter, and legal features), individual officer characteristics (e.g., gender, race, education, and attitudes), organizational characteristics (e.g., police subculture, strategies, formal and informal policies, department styles, and supervision), and community characteristics (e.g., political, economic, and demographic).

Clearly, some of these factors exert a greater degree of influence over police behavior than others. For instance, it is generally agreed that individual officers’ characteristics have little or no causal effect on police behavior, whereas legal factors are considered to be very strong predictors of police behavior. While extralegal variables usually have a smaller effect, they are important nonetheless because one would not expect these factors to influence behavior if police organizations are to be considered legitimate. The bulk of police research in the 1970s and 1980s focused on the explanatory power of situational and individual characteristics over police behavior. Much of the research in the 1990s has refined these earlier findings through more careful measurement and better data collection techniques. Unfortunately, less is known about the potential influence of organizational and community factors over police behavior; the range and level of explanatory power of these factors is not fully known.

Future police research should consider not only the influence of organizational and community factors, but also needs to examine a wider range of behavior. Currently, most research attempts to explain police use of arrest and force. More research is needed that examines other police actions that may not be as punitive as arrest and use of force, but nonetheless have a significant influence over the lives of citizens. Finally, police researchers need to explore alternative methods of data collection in an effort to better understand not just the decisions officers make, but why they make those decisions.


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