Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings

By Stephen K. Rice; Michael D. White Roberts | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

Methods for Assessing Racially Biased Policing

Greg Ridgeway and John MacDonald


Introduction

Over the past ten years there has been a proliferation of research that has attempted to estimate the level of racial bias in police behavior. Many police agencies now mandate that their officers record official contacts made with citizens during routine traffic or pedestrian stops. These administrative data sources typically include a host of information on characteristics of the stops made by police officers, including: the race/ethnicity of the driver or pedestrian; reasons for the stop; and the actions that occurred after the stop, such as searches, contraband found, and citations or arrests made. These data have been the source for the majority of studies of racially biased police behavior. Analysts have sought to apply basic social science methods to assess whether police agencies as a whole, or in some cases individual police officers, are acting in a racially biased manner. A consistent theme in this research is the search for the appropriate benchmark1 for which one can quantitatively assess whether police behavior is conducted in a racially biased manner. Studies have linked police administrative data on stops made by officers to a variety of data sources, including: police arrest data, population estimates collected by the Census Bureau, driver's license data, motor vehicle traffic accident data, moving violations data, systematic observations of drivers, and other sources. Analysts have also attempted to estimate racial bias from assessments of post-stop outcomes and examinations of the “hit rate” (contraband found) from searches. Post-stop outcomes have also focused on matching strategies to appropriately compare minorities and whites that were similarly situated. More recently, efforts have been made to assess individual police officer bias by peer-group officer comparisons.

In the following sections we outline the various methods that have been employed in studies of racially biased policing. We provide an overview of the use of external benchmarks, internal benchmarks, and post-stop outcomes analysis for assessing racial profiling. Our discussion is not an exhaustive review of the literature. Rather, we focus on assessing the methods, their appeal, and their substantive limitations. Developing an appropriate benchmark is more complicated than is presumed in media reports. All the methods we review for assessing racially biased policing have weaknesses, but some approaches are clearly stronger than others. There is no unifying

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