Dec. 8, 2014Vol. 45, Issue 3

Hunting for “Dirtbags”

Editor’s Note: Department of Political Science Chair Ryan Patten was selected to give the keynote address at the 2014 College of Behavioral and Social Sciences’ Faculty Colloquium Nov. 18. He presented research from his book, Hunting for “Dirtbags”: Why Cops Over-Police the Poor and Racial Minorities, which he coauthored with former CSU, Chico political science professor Lori Beth Way.

Photo of Ryan PattenOur most recent research centers on individual-officer, discretionary, proactive patrol and why officers engaged in this crime-reduction strategy. With this strategy, when officers are not responding to a citizen call for service, police officers contact people they deem to be “suspicious.” Once the police contact these people, citizens are made to identify themselves, are subject to police questions, and are sometimes frisked for weapons. The whole goal of a discretionary contact is to identify law-breaking behavior and make an arrest. Discretionary, proactive patrol is different from reactive patrol: In the latter, police officers wait for a citizen to dial 9-1-1, then respond to the caller’s concern, which may or may not be crime related.

For our study, we observed the police departments in two cities: “Stonesville,” California, and “Seaside,” a large, urban city on the East Coast. (Both police departments requested anonymity, but it should be noted that Stonesville is not Chico.) To gather our research, we engaged in ride alongs, where we rode in the police cars with the officers and made observations during the officers’ shifts. In total, we participated in more than 300 hours of ride alongs between the two cities.

Our findings were fascinating. In almost 90 percent of the police interactions, both reactive and discretionary proactive, there was no criminal activity. No tickets were issued nor were arrests made. About 75 percent of the police contacts came from reactive calls compared to about 25 percent resulting from individual officer-driven discretionary contacts.

The really interesting findings relate to how the police acted differently during the proactive versus the reactive contacts. In the proactive contacts, the officers in both cities were more likely to write a ticket and frisk someone, but these proactive contacts led to only a very slight increase in arrests (3 percent and 2 percent, respectively). This implied that the police were not very skilled in identifying lawbreakers or criminal situations.

The current method of evaluating police officers rewards and encourages their discretionary policing tactics.

We also discovered that the majority of these individual, discretionary, proactive contacts occurred in lower-income neighborhoods, and some of these neighborhoods were dominated by racial minorities. Additionally, it was the intersection of poor and minority-dominated neighborhoods that related to higher officer interest in discretionary stops. Neighborhoods that were both poor and minority-dominated are where officers perceived there to be criminal activity afoot and where they made many of their discretionary stops. As noted previously, however, overwhelmingly, these stops did not lead to arrests.

photo of book coverQuite frequently, the end results of these stops left citizens and the officers frustrated. Citizens felt targeted by the police as criminals, even though they had done nothing wrong. Officers were often defensive when questioned by citizens regarding why the officers had stopped someone for extra scrutiny. So if these discretionary proactive stops did not greatly increase the number of arrests and led to anger and resentment by poor and racial minorities, then why do police officers engage in this behavior?

Police officers are evaluated based on the number of citations issued and arrests made. Come time for promotion or reassignment to an elite unit (K-9, SWAT, or others), officers are evaluated based on their productivity. “Active” officers, when compared to their less-active counterparts, are the ones who earn these prized promotions and assignments. Officers, being rational actors, know evaluations and promotions are based on their productivity, so the officers go where they think they will be successful making arrests. The current method of evaluating police officers rewards and encourages their discretionary policing tactics.

We know discretionary policing leads to biased policing simply based on the number of lawsuits settled. Since 2000, the police departments in Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati, just to name a few, have all settled lawsuits for discriminatory policing or racial profiling. Even worse, discretionary, proactive policing leads to public mistrust of the police.   

A change is needed in how police departments and their officers are evaluated. Instead of allowing officers to make discretionary, proactive stops, why not require police departments to utilize an empirical strategy based on evidence? Crime-reduction strategies such as COMPSTAT (short for Complaint Statistics, a management philosophy first introduced in the New York City police department) and Hot Spot policing (identifying and formulating a strategic response to high-crime areas) have been proven to reduce crime in communities. Even better, the police use empirical data, not hunches or intuition, in rooting out criminal activity. Police officers would then be following a department-wide strategy based on evidence, and would not be allowed to use discretionary methods when contacting citizens.

Ryan Patten may be reached at rpatten@csuchico.edu.

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