Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings

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

Chapter 12

Citizens' Demeanor, Race, and Traffic Stops

Robin S. Engel, Charles F. Klahm IV, and Rob Tillyer,


Introduction

Since the 1960s, a body of academic literature has developed that seeks to explain police decision making during police-citizen encounters.1 This body of research began with rich, ethnographic descriptions of police work, followed by more quantitative analyses designed to test hypotheses about extra-legal influences over police decision making. Collectively, this research has consistently demonstrated that legal factors have the strongest influence over the outcomes citizens receive during police-citizen encounters.2 Of great importance, however, are findings from a handful of studies that suggest that extra-legal factors, including citizens' characteristics, continue to influence police decision making even after other legal factors are considered. Although the findings regarding the influence of extra-legal factors are substantively weaker and more inconsistent across studies compared to the reported link between legal factors and police decision making, they have fueled the continuing interest in documenting and understanding outcomes resulting from police-citizen encounters. As a result, this body of research has continued to grow, making significant theoretical, methodological, and statistical advances in the field.

Researchers studying police behavior have recently narrowed the focus of their inquiries regarding police decision making to specifically examining racial/ethnic disparities during traffic stops. This attention was fueled by perceptions of racial discrimination at the hands of police as they sought “profiles” of drug couriers for criminal interdiction purposes on interstates and highways across the country.3 These claims of racial/ethnic profiling resulted in the collection of official data during traffic and pedestrian stops by police agencies across the country, and analyses of these data designed to determine the impact of citizens' race/ethnicity on the likelihood of being stopped and subsequent coercive outcomes.4 Numerous studies have confirmed the existence of racial/ethnic disparities in traffic stops and traffic stop outcomes.5 Unlike the larger body of research examining police decision making, however, traffic stop studies have not considered many of the legal and extra-legal factors known to affect officers' behavior. One factor in particular—citizens' behavior—has consistently been shown in previous research to influence police behavior, but has not been systematically considered in traffic stop studies.

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