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Examining Factors Influencing Police Decision Making Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5443 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Police decision-making relies on a myriad of factors to include the individual officer’s characteristics, the environment the officer works in, the characteristics of the offender, the situation the officer finds themselves in, and the organization that influences them. In an attempt to control officer behavior and discretion, some police agencies have encouraged and/or mandated the increased hiring of minorities, women, and college educated officers. The belief is that officer characteristics such as race, sex, and education have an effect on police decision making and these characteristics will have a moderating influence on egregious behaviors such as excessive force, police shootings, and violations of civil rights. However, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that officer characteristics have such a strong influence to counter the other factors of situation, organization, and environment in decision-making. Since officer characteristics are a minor part of the complex factors influencing police behavior, there is no harm in promoting increased hiring of minorities, women, and college educated officers. These hiring policies do need to be seen as an attempt by the police agency to hire officers that share characteristics of the constituency that they serve. More study is needed to verify the influences of officer characteristics on police behavior and then, if the studies verify a connection, this research can substantiate the increased hiring practices of minorities, women, and college educated officers.

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There is a dearth of quasi-experimental and experimental designs into the factors that influence a police officer’s decision-making. Questions remain on how influential certain characteristics such as officer sex, race, age, education, and attitude can be on officer behavior. Of the existing studies that investigate the influences of officer characteristics, the results are mixed on how influential these characteristics are. However, there are numerous studies, while not experimental, that can help explain police behaviors through factors other than officer characteristics (National Research Council, 2004, pp. 34-35). By using these studies of other than officer characteristics, we can validate how strong or weak these factors are on officer behavior. More studies of officer characteristics on police behavior are needed in order to justify the sanctioned hiring of more females, minorities, and college educated officers in an attempt to control officer behavior. Some police administrators and policy makers think that officers with more education and a diverse background will make better decisions when interacting with the public and reduce the incidents of excessive force and violations of civil rights (Walker, 1998, p. 232) and this is the reason for implementing affirmative action hiring programs at some police agencies.

Some factors put forth as possible behavioral influences on police officers have included citizen behaviors and attitudes, ecological influences, environmental factors, legal restraints, organizational factors, politics, and situational factors. While all are capable of influencing behavior, none answers the entire question of determining and predicting police behavior (National Research Council, 2004, pp. 214-216). One of the biggest obstacles in determining police behavior is overcoming ingrained “conventional wisdom” on police matters. There is too much attention placed on certain behaviors such as racial profiling, police shootings, use of force, and corruption without trying to understand the causes and definitions of such behaviors. These high-profile incidents receive quick fixes from politicians and police administrators without addressing the underlying causes. Theory based studies would be better used to explain and correct egregious displays of police behavior (Engel, 2002, pp. 269-270). There is a need for empirical based studies of police behavior in order to determine which factors, if any, influence the behavior of police officers, the use of discretion, and whether if police departments can control for these behaviors by emphasizing the hiring of women, minorities, and college educated officers (National Research Council, 2004, pp. 152-154).

Based on the evidence so far, the influences on police behavior are too complex and varied to make a strong conclusion that certain policies such as hiring more minorities, women, and college educated officers can correct and/control individual police behavior. Although strong correlations exist between police behavior and situational, legal, organizational, and community factors, none represents a bellwether solution for influencing police behavior. With no conclusive evidence linking certain officer characteristics such as officer race, gender, and education to particular behaviors, policies emphasizing departmental solutions to behavioral issues should be maintained within certain contexts. Rather than being seen as a tool to influence officer behaviors and outcomes, these hiring practices should be seen as an attempt to correct previous discriminatory hiring practices, promote employee diversity, and as an endeavor to have a police agency reflect their constituency in order to build trust and cooperation. Other factors such as police culture, situations, and police bureaucracy that have been shown to have more of an influence police behavior than officer characteristics should be given more focus in attempts to change officer behavior.


The Importance of Discretion

Tackling the issue of determining the basis of police behavior is not new but the complexity of the issue was realized from the beginning of such research as the American Bar Foundation Survey in the 1950’s and its follow-on research by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement in 1967. Though these early studies spent considerable time in attempting to understand police discretion, they laid the groundwork for later studies on police behavior and raised several questions in the process (Walker, 1992, pp. 48-54). Questions such as the influence of officer characteristics and attitude on officer behavior are still not fully understood. These studies began with the emphasis on examining police behavior and public interaction with the belief that most officers performed their jobs according to the letter of the law. However, it was soon discovered in the course of these studies that the police exercised an enormous amount of discretion in applying the law (National Research Council, 2004, pp. 22-23).

The importance discretion has on police behavior cannot be overstated. A police officer, once out of training, operates with very little direct supervision and can be highly selective in demonstrating the power of the police. Even when answering service calls with ample evidence of a crime, there is no guarantee that the officer will take a formal action against a citizen. Almost every interaction an officer has with the public has a measure of discretion. Because of a lack of direct supervision, the actions of the officer cannot be constantly monitored to ensure adherence to the law and obedience of civil rights. On one hand, an officer decides to enforce the law and make the arrest. This action then comes under the review of the police department, courts, the media, and the public since arrest in the United States are a matter of the public record. On the other hand, an officer decides not to make an arrest by using discretion. The reasons for no arrest can vary from lack of evidence to the officer’s concern that her/his shift is almost over and does not want to stay late to book an arrest. Only the officer, the suspect, and perhaps some bystanders have knowledge of the non-arrest. Since none of these people occupy the officer’s chain of command or justice sub-system, this decision of non-arrest is not up for review except in rare circumstances (Goldstein, 1960, pp. 90-92).

Goldstein (1960) noted that the use of police discretion in not making arrests are not reviewed except in cases where the police detained suspects in a crime and the suspect went on to commit further crimes and/or the non-arrest is seen as part of corruption. However, arrests and therefore the decisions to make that arrest are under review at every juncture of the criminal justice process, from booking through adjudication. Therefore, the burden of a good arrest and the discretion used to make the arrest is no longer on the officer put placed with the courts for review.

Police officers use their discretion for a multitude of purposes, from being a “crime fighter” to doing their best to avoid as much work as possible. Allowing for the effects of being the subject of a study, officers still exhibit a wide range of behaviors depending on when, where, and with whom they choose to exercise their powers of detention, questioning, arrest, and force (Van Maanen, 1974, p. 122). Added to the everyday factors such as the situation in which the officer find himself or herself interacting with citizens, expectations of their agency and co-workers, and differences in location, the officer is also part of a public service organization. The police have competing mandates and responsibilities placed upon them by a fickle public and an even more fickle political system. These mandates and responsibilities are usually not clearly communicated or only communicated after an incident has taken place and the police response was not what the public expected of their agency. Discretion is used by police management to guide these expectations down to the beat officer and to adjust to a changing and mercurial political climate (National Research Council, 2004, p. 57).

Studying Police Behavior and Discretion

Discretion has been the focus of study since the 1950’s and 1960’s in an attempt to understand how officer decision making influences police behavior. More importantly, researchers were looking into how discretion factored into situations in which officers violated civil rights, arrest decisions, and racial discrimination (National Research Council, 2004, p. 64). While previous research focused on the police applying the law, it was thought that officers clearly applied the law fairly and non-discriminately when the law had been broken. However, follow-up studies revealed that discretion in how the officer applied the law was more important to decision making than once believed. Officers were shown to not make arrests even when the law was clearly broken and were making arrests for reasons other than law breaking i.e., citizen safety, disrespect, and case management (National Research Council, 2004, p. 70).

Attempts to control discretion have been tried in different police agencies, often because of police shootings and other misapplications of deadly force. While most attempts to control or formalize discretion have met with mixed results, other such as in the aftermath of the Memphis police shootings have been successful in reducing police shootings and implementing other administrative controls (Fyfe, 1982, p. 72). The use of discretion carries with it a double-sided curse of being unavoidable in police work in a democratic political system. With no discretion, police officers would be heavy handed and legalistic but still exercising some type of preference, just with more subtlety and with obvious crimes being ignored and minor infractions being investigated. Attempts by police administrators to control discretion have failed (Aaronson et al., 1984, pp. 408-436) and even though it can encourage abuses, discretion carries with it the will of the people who are being policed.

The Exercise of Police Arrest Power

The actions of the police are based on the lawfulness and legitimacy of their actions in controlling the public. The public also has to recognize the legitimacy of the police and submit to these tenets in order to be policed. When there is conflict between the public and the police it is usually a result of the police not following the strictures set up under the law e.g., unlawful search and seizure, interrogations without Miranda warnings, and excessive force (National Research Council, 2004, pp. 5-6, 252).

Various police agencies exercise discretion and arrest power in different ways based on the style of policing the agency utilizes. There are three styles of policing identified by Wilson (1968): the watchman, service, and legalistic. Discretion is used the most often under the watchman style since these types of agencies are primarily concerned with order maintenance. Officers using this style are most concerned with maintaining social control by suppressing illegal activities and disruptive behavior. Discretion is used along with arrest powers to persuade, threaten, and discourage potential lawbreakers (National Research Council, 2004, pp. 70-71). The legalistic police agency is the opposite of the watchman style with an emphasis on enforcing the law no matter how small the infraction may be. Legalistic agencies tend to have high arrest rates, issue more citations, and utilize the law to target and/or harass persons suspected of violating the law. The use of discretion is low for these types of departments since they tend to view infractions in more concrete terms and use arrest as a tool even for minor infractions. This type of full enforcement also constrains officer behavior and allows some amount of control over the officer by the agency. Police agencies that use a service style of policing are using both order maintenance and law enforcement while staying attuned to the desires of the community they serve. While less emphasis is placed on using arrest for even minor infractions, the service type of agency still uses arrest and discretion to enforce the laws that are important to the local community. Officer behavior is still controlled but not as much as under the legalistic style but also not given as much freedom as under the watchman style. However, discretion is still present in all three styles with varying degrees of arrest power implemented and/or encouraged by the agency in order to more closely adhere to the desired outcomes of the police agency.


Effects on Police Behavior

It has been suggested that an officer’s psychological and attitudinal orientation influence the officer’s behavior when they interact with the public. This assumption deals with an officer’s traits, experiences, and attitudes (Terrill and Mastrofski, 2002, p. 218). One area that has drawn an increasing amount of attention from researchers is officer characteristics and the use of force. Research into the influences of officer education and experience has suggested that officer education and experience have a positive effect on the use of force in that officers with more experience and formal education are more likely to use alternate forms of citizen control. Officer education refers to formal education outside of police training and usually means some type of college or trade school education. Officer experience refers to the amount of years employed as a police officer. The research found that a more educated and experienced officer shows more restraint when applying force (Terrill and Mastrofski, 2002, p. 244).

Officer behavior can be explained by the situational factors officers find themselves in and by the attitude exhibited by the officer. However, the link between situational factors and officer behavior is stronger than the attitude link. While going against conventional wisdom, officer attitude has not been found to be a strong indicator of officer behavior and this holds true for the general population as well (Worden, 1989, p. 670). Situational and organizational factors have been found to be a more important source of officer decision making than attitudinal based factors (Worden, 1989, pp. 673-674). An officer is also heavily influenced by the legal factors involved when an officer encounters a citizen such as the citizen’s resistance to orders, officer and citizen safety, and evidence of a crime. Usually when an officer finds her or himself dealing with a situation that requires arrest or the use of force within a legal framework, they will behave accordingly rather than rely on officer attitude or other officer characteristics (Terrill and Mastrofski, 2002, pp. 233-235).

The officer’s race has also been studied as a possible explanation for police behavior with the thinking that an officer of a minority background would interact with citizens of the same race differently and with greater understanding. Agencies have encouraged the hiring of more black officers with the expectation that black officers would improve relations between police and the black community and reduce the amount of bias held by officers against black citizens. However, before race or ethnicity can be examined as a possible source of behavior and a predictor of future behavior, other influential factors must be controlled for. These include length of the officer’s experience on the job, their level of education, characteristics of the suspect, and type of encounter in question. Studies such as Brown and Frank’s (2006) hold that officer race has an influence on arrest decisions and behavior but their study had to control for the above-mentioned factors. They found white officers were more likely to make arrests than black officers were but that black officers were more likely to arrest black suspects. Other research found that while there were differences in the attitudes of minority and white officers, African American officers arrested African American suspects more often and were more likely to use force against minority suspects than white officers (XXX)

An officer’s gender has also been identified as a possible source of officer behavior. However, there has been no significant evidence to suggest that male and female officers behave differently in the course of their jobs even though it has been suggested that female officers would be less aggressive and rely more on persuasion and verbal tactics during suspect confrontations (National Research Council, 2004, p. 151). The few studies that showed a difference in officer behaviors based on gender were directed toward community policing and order maintenance situations. Engel et al. (2000) founds that female officers focus more on problem solving when confronted with issues during their shifts (National Research Council, 2004, p. 151). Female officers, when operating under the auspices of community policing, have been found to have a more positive attitude towards citizens and the goals of the community policing programs than do male officers (Skogan and Hartnett, 1997, pp. 239-242). Mastrofski et al. (2000) concluded that female officers also were more likely to honor a citizen’s request to control other citizens within the context of community policing (p. 335). Other than attitudes, differences between female and male officer bahvior during the course of their duties has not been shown. Female officers seem to exhibit the same bahviors as male officers when confronted with different situations and different behaviors exhibited by citizens. Whether these citizen inteactions required restraint, issuance of citations, force, or arrest, the actions of the female officers was very similar to those of male officers (Walker,

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).

Going Against Type, Styles of Officer Behavior

Being part of a heavily bureaucratized and politicized organization, the police officer has the opportunity to depend upon a certain type of behavior in order to make their work enjoyable. A police officer is supervised closely and operates independently at the same time, utilizing discretion and experience to either patrol aggressively or only answer service calls. The intricate factors that influence decision-making include organizational pressures, territory coverage, survival, street code, group dynamics, and coping skills. Since the nature of patrol work can change from moment to moment and can only be generally predicted over the course of a shift, the behavior an officer exhibits can quickly change from an aggressive legalistic style to a laid back, emergency response style over the course of a shift (Van Maanen, 1974, pp. 120-121).

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Outside factors have an influence on officer behavior as strongly as internalized attitudes and beliefs. Because the police agency is heavily influenced by outside forces such as the law, bureaucratic control, politics, and public complaints, sometimes the officer’s behavior is pre-determined by such constraints (Herbert, 1998, pp. 361-364). An officer also has to hold themselves to an organizational ideal of being competent, moral, and safe (for self and fellow officers). Even if an officer exhibits the attributes of a hard-charger or a desk jockey, they are still expected to meet the minimum expectations of the group i.e., assist when called upon, show solidarity with fellow officers, and be safe (Herbert, 1998, pp. 355-361).


The Probability of Arrest

Factors other than officer characteristics have been shown to be a better predictor of officer behavior in terms of arrest. Citizen initiated arrests and preferences have a stronger influence on arrest decisions than the preferences of the officer, who sometimes would prefer to be more lenient and possess more evidence when making an arrest decision. Seriousness of the crime, whether the suspect is known and/or related to the officer, and the amount of disrespect given to the officer are also factors that take the arrest decision beyond officer characteristics (Black, 1971, pp. 1104-1110).

Suspect demeanor also has been shown to be a strong indicator of the chances of being arrested. An officer, no matter their attitude or other characteristics, will not usually subject themselves to disrespect and abuse at the hands of a citizen. Although situation specific, interaction between police and citizens is influenced by the behavior displayed by both parties, and an escalation of perceived disrespect by one party against the other is met with resistance by the other. There is also disagreement among officers on what construes disrespect, which adds to the difficulty in using suspect demeanor as an officer behavior predictor (Klinger, 1994, pp. 489-491). However, the correlation in suspect demeanor and chance of arrest is still a strong indicator of officer behavior and prediction (Worden & Shepard, 1996, pp. 99-103).

Other situational factors such as the mental health of a suspect and citizen requests have a much stronger effect on officer behavior than officer characteristics. Even though there may be a correlation on an officer’s education level in respect to the officer’s predilection to arrest a mentally disordered suspect (Engel and Silver, 2001, p. 247), officers have not been shown to disproportionately arrest mentally disordered persons based on mental health (Engel and Silver, 2001, pp. 245-248). An officer is usually not inclined to grant a citizen’s request to arrest another unless there is evidence of a crime committed. This holds true regardless of the citizen’s race, wealth, or social affiliation. However, Mastrofski et al. (2000) found that male officers, officers of limited experience, and officers with a passion for community policing were more apt to honor a request for arrest.

Suspect Characteristics

It has long been pre-supposed by the advocates of conventional wisdom that certain characteristics of the suspects that are immediately discernable such as age, race, sex, and social class had an influence on the officer’s decision to make an arrest or some other formal action.



The Influences of the Organization

The influence of organizational factors on officer behavior is dependent upon the type of organization the officer is working in. Smith (1984) identified bureaucratic and professional agencies with four sub-categories identified by the level of bureaucracy and professionalism within the agency. High professionalism and high bureaucracy is legalistic, high professionalism with low bureaucracy is service, low professionalism with high bureaucracy is militaristic, and low professionalism with low bureaucracy is fraternal. Therefore, the behavior of the officer can be reasonably predicted based on the type of agency and that agency’s definition of legal control (Smith, 1984, pp. 33-35).

Organizational influences on officer behavior can also be seen when using expectancy theory. The organization, in this case police agency or department, instills certain expectations from its officers in regards to arrests, traffic stops, citations issued, etc. In the example used by Mastrofski et al. (1994) in their study of Pennsylvania police officers, DUI enforcement was the studied expectancy. Mastrofski et al. (1994) found that when the officers operated under the expectations of their agencies, they usually complied whether the expectations were for high or minimal enforcement. The characteristics of the individual officers did not play a significant role except for a small number of “rate busters” who bucked the system and made significantly more arrests for DUI (Mastrofski et al., 1994, pp. 142-145).

Organizational factors have been shown to have the ability to change officer behavior when there has been directed action against identified behavior, usually in response to police abuses or scandal. An example of this occurred when the Memphis police department made a concerted effort to reduce the amount of police shootings since the rate of deadly shootings in Memphis was disproportionate when compared to other, larger cities (Fyfe, 1982, pp. 712-717). The reasons for shooting given by the Memphis officers were not in agreement with reasons given by the comparison city of New York since Memphis officers showed a predilection to using deadly force for property crime offenses (Fyfe, 1982, pp. 715-716) while New York officers did not. The Memphis police addressed this issue by instituting a more stringent deadly force policy and officer survival training in an attempt to reduce the shootings incidents.

An organization’s influence on officer behavior can also be seen in the supervisory styles of police mid-level management. Engel (2001) identified different supervisory styles among police sergeants and lieutenants identified as traditional, innovative, supportive, and active (pp. 347-350). While each style has a direct influence on the officers they are supervising, it is also interesting to note the attitudes of the supervisors themselves when the distribution is included for sex, race, rank, age, experience, and education. Engel (2001) found that half of the traditional supervisors were female, this may be attributed to their use of rules, and regulations to keep officers in line and under control since female supervisors may have an issue with perceived power by subordinates (pp. 350-351).


Patrolling the Neighborhood

The area in which a police officer patrols has an effect on their behavior. This depends on the social, economic, and attitudinal makeup of the local residents of the neighborhood in question. There are also other environmental factors influencing police behavior. These include community interaction, past history of policing the neighborhood, the local politics, and the dominant area culture (National Research Council, 2004, pp. 155-156).

The influence of the neighborhood is strong on potential police behavior dependent upon the type of neighborhood that is served by the police. Smith (1986) found that police behave differently in higher status neighborhoods than they do in lower status neighborhoods. For example, the police are more prone to stop and question a suspicious person in a higher status neighborhood than in lower status, less racially heterogeneous neighborhoods (pp. 338-339).

Neighborhood conditions also affect police behavior. Klinger (1997) found that officers come to view deviant behaviors as normal if they are exposed to the behavior in neighborhoods that are economically disadvantaged. Rather than acting as service providers in these types of neighborhoods, officers quickly learn to prioritize the crimes in terms of urgency and the need to respond (pp. 298-300). Crank (1990) also found differences in officer behaviors in terms of motivation to arrest in rural and urban areas. Not only are there differences between police behaviors within a municipal area, there are also differences in behavior between rural and urban police with the rural police officer being more prone to make arrests for discretionary offenses (pp. 185-187).


Police agencies, the public, policy makers, and politicians have long had the desire to recruit and employ officers whose behavior is beyond reproach. An officer who made the correct decision in every instance without regard to a suspect’s race, sex, economic status, or mental health would be highly regarded and emulated. When the officer was confronted with situations that required the application of force and/or restraint, they would do so correctly and with the proper legal justifications. It is thought that the use of officer discretion would also be properly applied and controlled by the first line supervisors and directed by the agencies themselves based on community need. Agencies believe they could partially meet these goals if they emphasize the hiring of women, minorities, and college educated officers.

However, due the complexity of police work and the multitude of influences such as situational, organizational, and environmental factors, shaping officer behaviors would be very difficult indeed. As was shown in numerous studies above, these other influences besides officer characteristics, often have a stronger influence over officer behavior than the officer’s own attitude, race, sex, and/or education.


The emphasis on hiring more minorities, women, and college-educated officers should continue because these programs are causing no harm and they are a reflection on the desires of the community that is being policed. No study has shown a negative effect of having more minorities, women, and college-educated officers on a particular police force. However, no study has shown a significant difference in police behaviors based on sex or race so more research is needed in an attempt to understand a connection between officer behavior and officer characteristics.


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