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Does the "Race of Places" Influence Police Officer Decision Making?

NCJ Number
Date Published
Cynthia Lum Ph.D.
This study examined whether the characteristics of places (residents’ dominant race and average income level) are linked to disparities in police decisionmaking in incidents according to their geographic location.
The study found that even when controlling for the level of violence and interaction effects, places with a greater proportion of Black or wealthy residents significantly influenced officers to downgrade crime classification and actions taken in incidents reported to the police. As expected, in places where violence was more frequent, more police reports were written and arrests made; however, there was significant evidence of handling calls less formally (less likely to write reports or make arrests) and reducing the seriousness of crime classifications in places with higher proportions of wealthy residents or a higher proportion of Black residents that are disadvantaged; however, there was less downgrading of police actions in communities with high proportions of Black residents compared to communities representing the wealthiest areas of the city studied (Seattle, WA). Similar effects were not consistently observed for places with large proportions of Asian, Hispanic, foreign-born, or linguistically isolated households. Still, there were significant upgradings and downgradings of police activities at particular points in an investigation for these other groups. These findings are sufficiently compelling to add to a place-based theory of policing. Whereas previous research has focused on individual racial characteristics of officers, suspects, victims, and witnesses in explaining officer discretionary decisions, this study indicates that the features of an environment in which an incident occurs can also affect police decisionmaking in important ways. This study developed police “decision pathways” for 267,937 crimes and disorders that occurred across 568 small places within a large, diverse, and metropolitan west coast city, Seattle, WA, over the course of 1 year. 18 tables, 6 figures, 111 references, and appended supplementary data
Date Created: September 21, 2010