Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings

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

Chapter 14

Community Characteristics and
Police Search Rates
Accounting for the Ethnic Diversity of
Urban Areas in the Study of Black,
White, and Hispanic Searches

Karen F. Parker, Erin C. Lane, and Geoffrey P. Alpert

Police officers' decisions to conduct searches subsequent to traffic stops are based on a number of factors including, but not limited to, their own discretion.1 Criminologists have long explored racial disparities in police behavior, ranging from arrest to incarceration.2 More recently researchers have suggested that race plays a role in the determination to search beyond other relevant legal factors.3 But other studies have found no significant evidence of racial disparities in searches when taking into account hit rates4 or the constitutionality of the search.5 The role of race in the decision making of police officers continues to elude us.

A growing body of research is interested in understanding the link between community characteristics and police behavior at the macro level.6 Studies have identified differential treatment of suspects by police officers relative to ecological conditions.7 According to Terrill and Mastrofski8 and Smith,9 neighborhood characteristics such as concentrated disadvantage, high crime rates, and racial composition increase the likelihood that police will handle suspects more coercively. Other studies have found that officers may equate neighborhood characteristics with the populations residing in them,10 and may use the ecological characteristics of areas as cues in decision making.11 Unfortunately, many of these studies focus on police use of force, coercive behavior, and, only recently, traffic stops.12 Few studies examine the relationship between the ecological conditions of neighborhoods and police search rates.13 Because this literature is limited, it remains unclear how and to what degree community characteristics contribute to search rates of distinct groups. The lack of research is increasingly troublesome in light of the growing race and ethnicity diversity of urban communities, such as the rise in Hispanic immigration and the percentage of foreignborn residents in American cities. Hispanics are a largely understudied group, and this void is particularly noticeable in the area of police searches.14

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