Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Economics of Shootouts: Does the Passage of Capital Punishment Laws Protect or Endanger Police Officers?

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Economics of Shootouts: Does the Passage of Capital Punishment Laws Protect or Endanger Police Officers?

Article excerpt


Over the past few years, the names of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond have been seared into the public consciousness of New York, in large part because they both were killed during a time when the public perception was that New York City was safer than ever before. The stories of these two men--innocent of any crime, yet gunned down by the police--seemed to emphasize a disturbing trend of suspect shootings by law enforcement officers. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has disputed this trend, arguing that in fact the police killed more citizens during his predecessor's reign. (1) Yet, as even the most junior student of econometrics could point out, Giuliani's predecessor also oversaw a more violent city.

Commentators have focused on a number of possible explanations for this apparent increase in the level of police-citizen violence--ranging from poorly trained police forces (2) and the recent arrival of a large number of African and West Indian immigrants, (3) to the personal leadership style of former Mayor Giuliani himself. (4) Yet none of the commentators has suggested that the apparent relative rise in gun violence between police and suspects could have resulted from, or be related to, what is truly the most dramatic change in New York's criminal justice system in the last decade: the reintroduction of capital punishment. (5)

This reintroduction of capital punishment could affect the likelihood of police-citizen violence in two ways. First, the possibility that the suspect will be subjected to capital punishment for an initial crime--such as a murder committed during an armed robbery--might lead a suspect to "fire away" upon encountering police rather than surrender peacefully. (6) In other words, the death sentence a suspect could face for the initial capital offense might assume greater immediate significance to the suspect than the risk of being sentenced to death for killing a police officer in a shootout while attempting to avoid arrest for the initial offense. Second, and conversely, the possibility of facing capital punishment for killing a police officer might be greater than the punishment for the initial crime, thus marginally deterring violence against police--i.e., the suspect may be deterred from resorting to gunfire in a police encounter by the risk of being subjected to a more severe punishment than that which the suspect could be subjected to for the initial offense.

This article examines the relationship between changes in capital punishment laws across the United States, and violence between police officers and suspects. It seeks to answer the question of whether the reintroduction of the death penalty makes it more or less likely that police officers will engage in violent conflicts while attempting to arrest suspects. My interest in this subject is motivated by three classes of issues: the empirical implications of capital punishment, the search for a theoretical model that could be used to predict possible outcomes for the relationship between capital punishment and police-citizen violehce, and the policy behind the need for such research. Part II of the article briefly describes past empirical research on the subject of police-citizen violence. This type of violence will be referred to as "shoot-outs." Part III describes the data and the empirical strategy employed in this essay; Part IV describes the results; and Part V provides a theoretical model of police-citizen violence. Finally, Part VI provides a conclusion.

A. Empirical Motivation

This article seeks to remedy the failure of scholars to establish empirically that the death penalty produces real behavioral effects. In the 1976 capital punishment case of Gregg v. Georgia, (7) Justice Potter Stewart wrote, "[s]tatistical attempts to evaluate the worth of the death penalty as a deterrent to crimes by potential offenders have occasioned a great deal of debate. …

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