Police Discretion in Law Enforcement Research Paper

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Coercive authority is central to the police role, and the discretionary use of police authority is a decision-making process, as officers evaluate the situations in which they intervene and choose a course of action from among a set of alternatives. This research paper approaches the study of police discretion from this decision-making perspective. It is concerned with several forms of authority: stops, frisks and searches, arrests, tickets, and the use of physical force.

Police authority is infrequently invoked, as a proportion of all police-citizen contacts.

Officers consider their authority as a resource in “handling” situations, and often they are able to handle situations without resorting to the use of formal authority. Research has illuminated to a degree the circumstances under which authority is used, from which inferences are drawn about the influences on police decision-making, but research has not for the most part formed the basis for normative judgments about the discretionary use of authority – when it has been used well or poorly.

Explaining the police decision-making process can be approached like any decision-making process. Behavior can be predicted or explained when the premises for decision are known. Police officers’ decisions turn on factual premises, which concern the consequences of alternative police actions and the nature of the situation from which the consequences can be projected, and value premises, about the goals of police intervention and the desirability of alternative sets of consequences. Explaining police decision-making is, however, complicated by the ambiguity and uncertainty of police officers’ task environments.

Many different elements of police-citizen encounters have been analyzed as hypothesized influences on police behavior, but only a few of them have been consistently found to affect the use of police authority. Several of those are legal factors: the seriousness of the offense, the strength of evidence, and the preferences of complainants for disposition. Among extralegal factors, only the demeanor of suspects has emerged as a fairly consistent predictor of police action.

The discretionary exercise of police authority varies across individual officers. It is fairly clear that this variation is patterned by officers’ length of service and also by officers’ outlooks and personality traits. The influence of other individual factors, such as educational background, is undetermined.

The use of police authority is subject to regulation by departmental policies, but the circumstances under which policy regulation can have maximum impact are seldom realized in policing. The use of deadly force can be successfully restricted. Other uses of police authority are probably less susceptible to policy guidance.

Among the many open questions about police use of their authority are three addressed in this research paper: the influence of citizens’ race, modeling police decision-making, and how research might contribute to improvements in the quality of police decision-making.


Coercive authority is central to the police officer’s role; it is a unique occupational prerogative that enables police to “handle” urgent situations. The situations may be crimes, with clear and serious violations of criminal law, the response to which is the apprehension of perpetrators, or the situations could be disorders, with ambiguities stemming from whether the law applies, who bears how much responsibility for the situation, and what should be done about it. But all of these situations share an element of urgency, in that prompt action is needed, whether it is a burglary in progress, a drunk driver, a loud party, a domestic conflict, or a blocked driveway (see especially Bittner 1974; Muir 1977).

In each instance, police exercise discretion, which is the capacity to choose among courses of action based on one’s judgment. Police officers typically work outside of direct supervision and often in private settings in which only the officer(s) and the parties directly involved have knowledge of the circumstances and the actions, if any, that police take. So while thick books of policies and procedures exist in many agencies, in practice, officers are left to define the situation and fashion a response, thus determining whether and, if so, which policies and procedures apply.

The exercise of police discretion is a decision-making process, as officers evaluate the situations in which they intervene and choose a course of action from among a set of alternatives; if their involvement is not at the request of a citizen, they also make decisions about whether to intervene. This research paper approaches the study of police discretion from this decision-making perspective. In the next section, the paper discusses the forms of authority that police exercise and how they have been analyzed; then it explains how a decision-making framework can be applied to police discretion in their use of authority. In the following section, the paper summarizes what is known about the explanations of officers’ discretionary choices. Then several open questions are addressed.

Police Authority And Discretionary Decision-Making

Police Authority

Police exercise several forms of authority. An officer may stop and detain someone when he/she has reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. An officer may frisk, or pat down, an individual if she/he has reasonable suspicion that the person might be armed. An officer may conduct a more extensive search of a person incident to that person’s arrest and may conduct a warrantless search of a person, a vehicle, or even a building under some other circumstances. An officer may take someone into custody for the purpose of charging them with a crime; if the suspected offense is a felony, an officer needs only probable cause to believe that a crime was committed, while for most offenses of lesser seriousness, the officer may act only if she/he witnesses the offense or a citizen signs a complaint. For some types of offenses, officers may issue a summons that directs the alleged offender to appear in court, rather than make a custodial arrest; this is of course common for traffic violations and also for some other less serious offenses (such as public drinking). Finally, police may use the physical force that is reasonably necessary to perform their duties; the US Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that police may even use deadly force if an “officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of some physical harm, either to the officer or others.” The forms of physical force that police may use has multiplied with the development and adoption of less-lethal weaponry, such as pepper spray and conducted energy devices, in the last 10–20 years.

Social science has focused mainly on the exercise of authority by patrol officers, and it has normally conceived, measured, and analyzed these forms of police authority one by one – that is, some studies examine arrest, while others analyze the use of physical force, and still others analyze stops, etc. In most instances, officers’ use of police authority consists of a discrete act – making an arrest, conducting a search; the main exception is the use of physical force, which is commonly broken down into forms of force that vary in their seriousness, such as physical restraint, impact methods (punches or kicks), and the use of weapons. These are not mutually exclusive forms of behavior, of course; to the contrary, an officer might well stop and detain, frisk, arrest, and physically restrain an individual in a single encounter. One effort to form a single scale of authority weighted the individual components, but empirically it was not much different from an arrest/no arrest dichotomy.

In general, police authority is infrequently invoked, as a proportion of all police-citizen contacts. Many years ago, James Q. Wilson (1968) observed that the tendency of the police is to underenforce the law, declining to take legal action even when the circumstances authorize them to take legal action. Thus it was not uncommon for police to release in the field offenders about whose culpability police had evidence sufficient to warrant arrest. Wilson pointed out that police see their authority as a resource in accomplishing their objectives, such that the application of their authority is not an end but a means, and in many instances their objective is merely to “handle the situation” – that is, to restore order and to prevent immediate violence. When an arrest was made, the “formal charge justifies the arrest but is not the reason for it” (Bittner 1974, p. 27); the reason for such an arrest is that the situation could not be handled in some other, informal fashion. Similarly, studies of the use of force have found that police seldom use physical force, and some research has found that police frequently refrain from using physical force when they could legally do so or use less physical force than the citizen’s resistance would justify. Sometimes police presence by itself is sufficient to restore order. And even if presence alone is not enough, police may be able to resolve matters by talking: persuading, cajoling, exhorting, negotiating, or mediating.

Since Wilson made his observation, with changes in the (semiprofessional) status of police, criminal procedure, and civil liability, the view of the police may be somewhat different, but not dramatically different. Even far into (and perhaps beyond) the “community era” of policing, authority is central to the police role. Police may now supplement their use (or threatened use) of authority with other approaches, but even when they perform problem-oriented policing, authority remains a resource on which they can and often do draw. In addition, the difficulty of reorienting police to a more community and problem-oriented role – getting officers to think in terms of groups of related incidents rather than individual incidents and to consider unconventional solutions to those problems – suggests that the use of coercive authority has not changed dramatically in the last 40–50 years. Arrest and physical force remain infrequent acts. Police proactivity – contacts with citizens initiated by the police – is almost certainly at a higher level now, however, and it has occasioned some controversy about its benefits and the social distribution of its costs.

Another change over time might lie in the public’s expectations for police effects on social conditions. In the early 1970s, Egon Bittner could say that police are “empowered and required to impose or … coerce a provisional solution upon emergent problems .. .” (1974: 18; emphasis added), suggesting that the solution extended no further than the immediate situation. Yet we evaluate the police in terms of more – for example, research on policing spouse assault assessed police interventions in terms of recidivism by assailants over a 6-month post-intervention period, not in terms of more “provisional” solutions.

Aside from hypothesized biases in the use of authority, to be discussed below, research has tended not to address the normative dimensions of police authority, that is, whether an arrest or the use of physical force was a good choice or a bad choice. The situations that police handle are complex, and so a normative judgment about the use of police authority is contingent on many factors. Moreover, the criteria against which such a judgment should be made are not at all clear. Officers’ choices could be judged in terms of immediate outcomes, such as whether agitated citizens are calmed, or in terms of longer-term outcomes, such as whether a domestic assailant recidivates. None of these have been much considered in research on police use of authority.

Another potential criterion is a professional one of “workmanship.” Bittner (1983) distinguishes legality from workmanship as standards against which to judge police performance. The former involves the application of “explicitly formulated schemes of regulation,” while the latter is concerned with officers’ “ability to call upon the resources of knowledge, skill, and judgment to meet and master the unexpected within one’s sphere of competence.” Bittner goes on to explain that the standard of workmanship would subject officers’ performance to the scrutiny and critique of others authorized to assess their work after the fact: peers, who are subject to the same review, and the community, on whose behalf the work is done. Similarly, Klockars (1996) proposes a “craft standard” against which the use of force could be compared, that is, what a skilled police officer would have done under the circumstances. A skilled police officer would take all possible steps to structure the situation into which she/he intervenes in such a way that either resistance will not be offered or the resistance can be overcome with a minimum of force. Few efforts have been made to develop such standards conceptually or empirically, however.

As a general proposition, social scientists seem agreed that authority is a resource that police should use sparingly. Muir (1977) describes a “good” officer as one who is morally comfortable with the use of coercive power as needed but who uses it only as needed. Moore (2002) allows as how police are more efficient when they use a minimum of authority. The use of police authority, he points out, depletes the “stock of private liberty” (2002: 26) that the public enjoys, and the “net value” of policing must take account of not only the crime and disorder that police prevent but also the costs of policing, one of which is the use of authority.

In the last 10 years or so, research has reflected a better appreciation for how the quality of police performance might have as much (or more) to do with how authority is exercised as it does with what form of authority is exercised. Surveys of citizens have repeatedly shown that they are more satisfied with their contacts with the police when they believe that police treated them with dignity and respect, gave them an opportunity to explain their situations and listened to what they had to say, and explained what police have done and/or will do, so that it is clear that officers are taking account of people’s needs and concerns and basing their decisions on facts. Moreover, these patterns hold even for people who experience unfavorable outcomes, such as being ticketed. Unfortunately, however, research on police behavior has only scratched the surface in its examination of the behavioral manifestations of procedural justice.


The discretionary use of police authority is a decision-making task, as officers must make choices – numerous choices – in their encounters with citizens. Among their choices, the uses of their authority are prominent: to stop and question, to frisk or search, to arrest, to cite, and to use any of a variety of forms of physical force. As an encounter with a citizen unfolds over time, the choices may recur.

Explaining this decision-making process, and the behavior that ensues therefrom, can in principle be approached like any decision-making process. Behavior can be predicted or explained when the premises for decision are known. Police officers’ decisions turn on factual premises, which concern the consequences of alternative police actions and the nature of the situation from which the consequences can be projected, and value premises, about the goals of police intervention and the desirability of alternative sets of consequences (see Worden and Brandl 1990, pp. 302–303). Most research on police behavior has, in effect, treated as hypothesized decision premises the characteristics of policecitizen encounters, such as the nature of the offense, the demeanor of suspects, and the preferences of complainants for a disposition. Several studies have also examined as potential influences the characteristics of police organizations; organizational policies, procedures, and informal norms may serve as decision premises. Some research has, in effect, allowed for variation in decision-making among classes of decision-makers, for example, male and female officers, novice and experienced officers, and college educated and less-educated officers.

Explaining police decision-making in terms of situational and organizational cues is complicated by the ambiguity and uncertainty of police officers’ task environments. Situational cues are ambiguous in that the meaning or significance of any cue, or set of cues, is subject to different interpretations. The credibility of citizens’ testimony (which often is contradicted by other citizens’ testimony), the severity of injuries, the degree of citizens’ sobriety, and many other features of police-citizen encounters are all matters of officers’ judgment, and these judgments can vary from situation to situation and from officer to officer. The same cue can be interpreted differently across multiple events or even ignored as irrelevant in some of them. The meaning and significance even of readily recognizable cues is ambiguous, subject to different interpretations by different officers. Similarly, organizational policies and group norms are ambiguous, requiring that officers interpret them as they are applied in individual cases.

Explanation is further complicated by uncertainty about cause-and-effect relationships. Once an officer interprets the meaning of situational cues and the applicability of organizational policies, she/he must choose a course of action based partly on the projected consequences of those alternatives, but no body of scientific or other technical knowledge guides officers in making such projections, and even if there were, they would be in any case only probabilistic. Officers may be socialized into some common working rules, but they also learn through their own idiosyncratic experiences, drawing from them some equally idiosyncratic lessons for practice. Thus we can posit that the meaning and also the implications of situational and organizational cues are heterogeneous across officers, which would attenuate the explanatory power of situational and organizational variables.

Prior research on police decision-making, for the most part, takes one of two approaches: ethnographic inquiry and quantitative analyses of decision outcomes (e.g., police decisions to arrest or to use force) in terms of situational factors that are the hypothesized stimuli to which decision-makers respond. The former have been very illuminating, though they are limited in their generalizability. The latter are scientifically rigorous, exploiting numerical data on the characteristics of the immediate decision task to estimate (often through regression analysis) their independent effects on decision outcomes. Researchers draw inferences about the forces that shape decision-making from the regression coefficients, treating the process by which informational inputs are interpreted and judgments are made to reach decisions as a “black box.” But these analyses are limited in their explanatory scope to factors that are of a priori significance, and we know that these factors fall far short of explaining police decisions.

Moreover, much of the research has been oriented not to explaining discretionary decision-making as such, but rather to determining whether and to what extent the application of police authority is influenced by “extralegal” factors, such as race, sex, and age. Thus, the analyses seek to control for the legal factors that legitimately shape police behavior, whereupon a determination can be made about whether residual variation is related to extralegal factors.

Influences On Discretionary Decision-Making

Most of the factors that have been analyzed as parts of an explanation of discretionary decisions by police have been classified into one of several sets, each a different level of explanation. As noted above, some of these factors, and those at the lowest level of explanation, are features of the police-citizen encounters in which the discretionary decisions are made; these are often referred to as situational factors. A second set, and the next higher level of explanation, are comprised of the characteristics and outlooks of individual officers. A third set, and a still higher level of explanation, are characteristics of the neighborhoods that form the immediate social context of police-citizen encounters. The fourth set include characteristics of police organizations, including both the formal, structural features of police agencies – rules, regulations, and specialization – and the informal organization: the peer culture(s) and norms. Finally, some research has attended to another, still higher level of organization: the requirements and constraints of the law, especially that of criminal procedure. This research paper concentrates on three of these sets: situational, officers, and organizational.

Situational Factors

Situational factors are external to the decision-maker and form the immediate decision environment. The most succinct statement of this explanatory perspective is Bittner’s, who asserts that “the role of the police is best understood as a mechanism for the distribution of non-negotiably coercive force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational exigencies” (1970: 46). Situational factors represent these exigencies. A more conventional sociological formulation is that of Black and Reiss (1967), who posit that police action turns on the social status, situational status (e.g., as complainant, suspect), and “subversive capability” of citizens. Most research of this genre, however, has been less theoretically driven in its assessments of situational exigencies.

Many different elements of police-citizen encounters have been analyzed as hypothesized influences on police behavior, but only a few of them have been consistently found to affect the use of police authority. Several of those are legal factors: the seriousness of the offense, the strength of evidence, and the preferences of complainants for disposition. Among extralegal factors, only the demeanor of suspects has emerged as a fairly consistent predictor of police action; the estimated effects of sex and age have been mixed, as have those of race, to which the paper returns below.

It should come as no surprise that the use of authority by American police is affected by legal factors, but research confirms that police are more likely to use their authority when they have evidence of criminal offending – and the stronger the evidence, the more likely is the use of authority – and when the offense is more serious. It is perhaps remarkable, however, that the effects are not stronger still. Certainly, police use of authority is not determined by legal factors; as noted above, police often do not take legal action even when they have grounds for legal action.

Furthermore, when complainants articulate a clear preference for or against legal action, police tend to comply, especially when the preference is for lenience. This tendency “gives police work a radically democratic character,” as Black (1971) points out, and as a result, police apply a standard of justice that varies with the moral standards of complainants, not a uniform standard of justice. However, as Mastrofski et al. (1995) observe, the cooperation of complainants is likely to affect prosecution, and so when complainants prefer that police not take legal action, police might reasonably treat that as an “instrumental” legal consideration. The frequency with which victims of domestic violence are reluctant to cooperate has, given concerns that these complainants are not exercising choice freely, prompted changes in laws and policies that are intended to attenuate the effect of complainant preference in such cases.

Both qualitative and quantitative studies have found that police are more likely to respond punitively to suspects who display disrespect toward the police. Empirical support for this relationship is nearly uniform in research on police behavior, even in the absence of a single, widely accepted definition and operationalization of demeanor, and notwithstanding whatever random measurement error has been contained in indicators of demeanor. This relationship is open to one or both of two interpretations: police penalize people who flunk the “attitude test” with arrest, ticketing, or a “thumping” (Van Maanen 1978), or police often give “breaks” to deferential suspects but seldom to those who are hostile or disrespectful. Some support can be found for both of these causal mechanisms.

Klinger (1994) questioned this “criminological axiom”, arguing that demeanor had been improperly conceived and measured in previous research and also that previous research had failed to control (adequately or at all) for crime committed by suspects during their encounters with police, including especially assaults on police officers. However, reanalyses of thenextant data, using measures that took account of Klinger’s critique, affirmed the previous conclusions, and other elements of Klinger’s argument have also been disputed (Worden et al. 1996). But Klinger’s critique surely revealed shortcomings and inconsistencies in the conceptualization and measurement of demeanor, and subsequent studies have exhibited the greater care that Klinger’s critique demanded.

Even so, theoretical ambiguity remains. Research now differentiates “resistance” from “demeanor,” yet many forms of (especially passive or only verbal) resistance are entirely legal, and we have reason to believe that many forms of (both legal and illegal) resistance are interpreted by police as failures of the attitude test, such that we should interpret their effects as the effects of demeanor (see Worden et al. 1996). So long as research is interested in explaining the discretionary use of police authority, and not merely in forming post hoc judgments about its propriety, conclusions about the effects of demeanor must turn on how officers interpret the various manifestations of disrespect.

More generally, the theory (such as it is) and much of the empirical analysis of situational effects has been based on a sociological framework, and one that makes an implicit assumption that the effects are not contingent on the backgrounds or outlooks of individual officers. This assumption is not entirely without merit, inasmuch as early research on police emphasized the shared working conditions, experiences, values, and norms among police; hence assuming (albeit implicitly) that officers attend to the same cues, interpret them similarly, consider the same set of alternative courses of action, and choose based on the same criteria is not unreasonable. Furthermore, some results seem to suggest that, on some dimensions of decision-making, officers approach their choices similarly: the arrest decision is shaped by the seriousness of the offense, the strength of evidence, the preferences of complainants, and the demeanor of suspects, and while there may be individual differences on these scores, the differences are not stark, and across the board it appears that these variables have a substantial degree of explanatory power. In other choices, especially choices among informal responses, however, the effects of situational factors have not been so robust (Worden 1989), and the use of authority other than arrest may be more susceptible to individual differences. Several qualitative studies in the 1970s (e.g., Brown 1981; Muir 1977) showed that officers do not all see their occupational environment the same way and that they develop distinct “operational styles”; different studies using different frameworks nevertheless described a set of officer types that were broadly congruent

Officer Characteristics And Outlooks

While it is clear that officers’ discretionary choices are structured by the characteristics of the incidents that they handle, it is also clear that these situational elements do not completely determine officers’ responses, as much of the variation in their behavior is unexplained by situational variables. Because officers’ decisions are of “low visibility” to their superiors and to the legal system, scholars have sometimes speculatively attributed the unexplained variation in behavior to officers’ attitudes and values. This perspective directs attention to factors internal to decision-maker, which might affect how situational cues are interpreted and evaluated and how options are assessed. For example, Toch (1980) found that violence-prone officers are especially sensitive to citizens’ challenges to their authority. Such an account has intuitive appeal, and it is of more than theoretical significance, inasmuch as it underlies initiatives to change the composition of or otherwise “upgrade” police personnel, since it is supposed that minority officers, female officers, or college educated officers have different outlooks and therefore perform the police role differently. It also underlies efforts to inculcate different outlooks through training.

Systematic research has not always confirmed these intuitive propositions. One of the earliest and most striking findings from observational research on police was that, while many officers professed to be prejudiced against African-Americans, officers did not act on that prejudice in their encounters with citizens (Reiss 1971). A later and more general examination of attitude-behavior consistency (Worden 1989) found only weak relationships between officers’ occupational attitudes (for example, their conceptions of the police role, attitudes toward citizens, and attitudes toward legal restrictions) and their behaviors (for example, proactivity in field interrogation and dispute resolution). Such results perhaps should not be surprising, in view of the ambiguity and uncertainty of police work. The ambiguous situations into which police intervene are subject to different interpretations, and they are not governed by well-established cause-and-effect relationships between police actions and desired outcomes, so officers’ choices among alternative courses of action may be only loosely structured by their attitudes and values. Officers with the same occupational outlooks might judge a situation differently, reading the informational cues in a situation in different ways, or perceive different ways of reaching the same objectives.

Be that as it may, analyses in several agencies have shown that small numbers of officers account for disproportionately large fractions of citizen complaints and use-of-force reports. Furthermore, Brandl et al. (2001) found that less experienced officers are disproportionately represented among officers with multiple complaints about the use of excessive force. Scrivner (1994) discovered five groups of officers among those referred to police psychologists due to their use of excessive force, including officers with personality disorders; officers whose job-related experiences – for example, traumatic incidents such as police shootings – put the officers at risk for abusing force; young and inexperienced officers who were also “highly impressionable and impulsive”; officers who develop inappropriate patrol styles; and officers with personal problems. Harris (2010) showed that officers differ in their career “trajectories” of misconduct.

Further, more recent findings have provided more support for the hypothesized effects of officers’ outlooks, mainly because it has analyzed attitudes as bundles in terms of which subsets of officers can be differentiated, rather than estimating the additive effects of attitudes one by one. For example, Terrill et al. (2003) found that officers whose occupational attitudes conform more closely to the tenets of the traditional police culture are more prone to the use of their coercive authority. Similarly, Paoline and Terrill (2005) found that such officers are more likely to conduct searches during traffic stops. Cuttler and Muchinsky (2006) found that personality traits and work history predict “dysfunctional job performance.” Other characteristics of officers – their race, sex, and educational background – have all been hypothesized to affect how officers do their jobs, though the evidence on these hypotheses is mixed and inconclusive (National Research Council 2004).

Thus it is fairly clear that the discretionary exercise of police authority varies across individual officers. It is also fairly clear that this variation is patterned by officers’ length of service and also by officers’ outlooks and personality traits. The influence of other individual factors, such as educational background, is undetermined.

Organizational Factors

The hypothesized effects of organizational factors, and particularly the formal, structural characteristics of rules, regulations, standard operating procedures, and the hierarchical chain of command through which they are enforced, are central to common ideas about police accountability. Police departments are widely known as quasi-military organizations, with many of the trappings of such organizations (such as ranks and insignia), as well as the aura of a tight chain of command. The nature of police tasks, however, which makes discretion an inherent element of police work, also circumscribes the effects of these organizational factors on the use of police authority.

One mechanism by which police departments might influence the use of force by their officers is, of course, through rules and regulations that set limits on when police may use force and how much force they may use. Research on the use of deadly force suggests that this mechanism can be effective, under some circumstances. In 1972, well in advance of the Garner ruling by the Supreme Court (in 1984), the New York City Police Department (NYPD) modified its policy about the use of deadly force, imposing much tighter restrictions, providing that “every other reasonable means will be utilized for arresting, preventing, or terminating a felony or for the defense of oneself or another before a police officer resorts to the use of his firearm” (quoted in Fyfe 1979). A study of the effects of this policy change showed that it had a substantial effect on officers’ use of their firearms (Fyfe 1979). The policy had an especially pronounced effect on what Fyfe (1988, p. 185) characterized as “elective” shootings, that is, situations in which officers could have chosen not to shoot at no risk to themselves or other parties. Furthermore, the reduction in shootings was achieved with no increase in officer injuries or deaths. The effectiveness of this policy almost certainly turned to a large extent on its enforcement. The NYPD established a Firearms Discharge Review Board to investigate and adjudicate all firearm discharges, holding officers accountable for their use of deadly force. Other research also found that restrictive deadly force policies are effective only if they are vigorously enforced.

No one should suppose that departmental policies that regulate the use of nonlethal force are or can be equally effective, however. The circumstances under which nonlethal force is justified are more heterogeneous and also more ambiguous; thus policy prescriptions concerning nonlethal force cannot achieve equivalent clarity.

Use-of-force continua and matrices specify different kinds and degree of force, and (sometimes) the degrees of citizen resistance to which forms of force correspond, but the resistance can take widely varied forms and the behavioral lines that conceptually demarcate different levels of resistance are far from clear in practice; ambiguity is inescapable. Moreover, the use of nonlethal force is probably less reliably reported by officers, and even if such force is infrequent as a proportion of police-citizen contacts, it happens with sufficient frequency that police superiors may not be able to routinely investigate every use of nonlethal force in order to determine officers’ compliance with policy. Furthermore, even when investigations can be conducted, one can anticipate that many will be inconclusive, with evidence limited to the contrasting accounts of the officer and the citizen against whom force was used. Thus the enforcement of such policies would almost inevitably lack the teeth associated with NYPD’s reviews of firearm discharges (where, as Fyfe points out, the population density is so high that one might reasonably suppose that few firearms discharges could be safely concealed). This is not to imply that policies would be altogether ineffective in limiting and guiding the use of nonlethal force, however; one recent study suggests that some types of policies are more effective than others – and presumably, better than no policy at all – in promoting the use of force that is proportional to citizen resistance (Terrill et al. 2011).

Similar expectations might be formed with respect to policies that are intended to promote or even mandate arrest in cases of domestic violence. The situations are ambiguous, and so the applicability of policy is subject to officers’ interpretations in the field, and enforcement of policy requirements would be hindered by the cost and difficulty of determining whether officers complied with the policy in individual cases, which are numerous. Even so, some research indicates that pro-arrest policies yield increases in arrests in domestic assault cases, though examples of resistance and noncompliance can be found.

Open Questions

The open questions about police use of their authority are far too numerous to even list here, much less consider them. Three questions are addressed: the influence of citizens’ race, modeling police decision-making, and how research might contribute to improvements in the quality of police decision-making.

Research on the police consistently finds that African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the people against whom police use their authority. It has inconsistently found that, other things being equal, race affects at the margin the application of police authority. The question of racial (and ethnic) bias in policing dates to at least the 1960s, when the grievances of urban minority populations against the police were cited as contributing factors to civil unrest. It has been especially salient in the aftermath of incidents in which police have been suspected of abusing their authority in their treatment of minority citizens, of which the Rodney King incident in 1991 may be the most widely known example. But since the mid-1990s, concerns about racial profiling by police – that is, the use of a drug courier profile that included race as a feature, and more generally stopping and searching African-Americans and other people of color based on their race or ethnicity – have been prevalent and sustained, even prompting many states and localities to mandate that police departments track the race of the people who are stopped. Unfortunately, the volume of analysis on this question has not been matched by its theoretical sophistication, and bedeviled by what is sometimes known as the benchmarking problem, the studies can seldom provide persuasive evidence about whether the disparities are or are not attributable to legitimate practices, and moreover, they are not oriented toward explanation and offer little insight into the role of race in police decision-making.

The mixed findings on the role of race may reflect the complex, contingent nature of the effects of race, but they might also be symptomatic of drawbacks to the conventional approach to analyzing police decision-making. This approach, described above, rests on an assumption that police decisions, like structural regression models, are a weighted sum of the postulated decision cues: legal seriousness, strength of evidence, complainant preference, suspect demeanor, and the like. It is unlikely that the process of police decision-making resembles this computational model, however. And the regression models seldom explain more than a small fraction of the variation in behavior. Different kinds of data and a different kind of model might yield deeper insights into the forces that shape police decisions.

A different approach, that of “protocol analysis” or “process tracing,” promises to shed further light onto decision-making by opening the black box of police officers’ cognitive processes (see Worden and Brandl 1990, and the sources cited therein). For research based on protocol analysis, decision-makers are asked to think aloud as they perform decision tasks, or they might be asked to recount their thinking as soon as possible after performing a decision task. Research subjects’ verbal reports of their thinking are data on their decision processes. Protocol analysis of police has not been conducted often, but several studies demonstrate that it is both feasible and illuminating. For example, Stalans and Finn (1995) discovered that the perceptual and cognitive processes that officers apply in interpreting and evaluating domestic violence incidents vary by experience: less experienced (“novice”) officers tend to evaluate domestic violence situations in terms of blame, while their more experienced colleagues are more pragmatic, putting more emphasis on the sparing use of arrest (and their time) and on an assessment of the immediate potential for further violence and the prospects for prosecution. Both novice and experienced officers, however, tended to assess situations as typical or atypical. Stroshine et al. (2008) enumerate informal “working rules” that serve to guide officers in performing their jobs, and they observe that “different officers look for different things and respond to suspects and situations differently” (2008: 335). They describe the cues to which officers attend in forming suspicion (e.g., time and place, and citizens’ appearance and behaviors), the rules of thumb that they apply (e.g., with respect to the seriousness of violations, or the citizen’s demeanor), and more general approaches that they take to their work (seeking out or avoiding opportunities for traffic enforcement). The potential of protocol analysis might be best realized through the construction of process models, which resemble flow charts. Compared to the structural models that are normally estimated, process models are probably more accurate representations of how people make complex decisions, especially under conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Finally, an overriding question revolves around the normative dimensions of police decision-making and the use of police authority. Research has little to say about the extent to which, and the circumstances under which, police use their authority well. Even research on the use of physical force has, for the most part, lost a focus on the improper use of force. Research will be far more useful if and when it can draw empirically grounded conclusions about when police should use what authority and why. Research will also be more useful if and when it can establish the connections between what the police do – what authority they exercise and how they exercise it – and how it is subjectively experienced by citizens; survey research has dwelt on citizens’ perceptions, but it has not estimated the relationships between citizens’ perceptions and overt police acts.


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