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Police: Police Officer Behavior

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 well-trained 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 "crack-downs") 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.

Supervision. 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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolice: Police Officer Behavior - Explaining Police Behavior, Individual Characteristics Of Officers, Conclusion, Bibliography