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The importance of individual police officers in law enforcement outcomes


The public’s perception of police fairness is essential to the willingness of citizens to cooperate with the police and is fundamental to establishing police legitimacy. However, little is known about whether police officers are actually fair and impartial in their application of the law. In this paper, I show that the likelihood of an arrest is not only a function of incident timing, geography, offense type, and other contextual factors but also critically depends on the identity of the police officer who responds to a call for service. Examining detailed data on more than 1,850 police officers responding to over 160,000 calls for service from the Dallas Police Department, I quantify variation in arrest behavior across individual police officer decision-makers and relate this variation to officer demographic and employment characteristics. I find that police officers are important determinants of arrest outcomes, with the variation in individual officer behavior accounting for 10-15% of the explainable variation in arrests. Officers vary widely in their arrest behavior, with a 1 standard deviation increase in an officer’s propensity to arrest resulting in a 33% increase in the likelihood that a given incident results in an arrest. Additionally, I find limited evidence that officer differences are driven by racial bias, a result that may be related to an array of progressive police reforms that have been adopted by the Dallas Police Department in recent years. 

Emily Weisburst,
Jan 17, 2018, 9:59 AM