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A Few Bad Apples? Racial Bias in Policing

Author

Listed:
  • Felipe Goncalves

    (Princeton University)

  • Steven Mello

    (Princeton University)

Abstract

We provide new evidence on the presence and distribution of racial bias in the criminal justice system. In many states, the punishment for speeding increases discontinuously with the speed of the driver, exhibiting large jumps in fine amounts. It is a common practice for officers to reduce the charged speed to just below this jump, avoiding an onerous punishment for the driver. Using data from the Florida Highway Patrol, we find evidence of significant bunching in ticketed speeds below a jump in punishment for all drivers but significantly more for whites than for blacks and Hispanics. We estimate the bias of each officer by comparing his lenience towards whites and non-whites, allowing us to recover the full distribution of bias. The total disparity in lenience across races can be explained by a small percentage (~20%) of officers. Officers tend to favor drivers of their own racial group, and younger, female, and college-educated officers are less biased. We then estimate a model that allows for both heterogeneity in officer preferences and driver speeds across races. Because minorities tend to live in areas where officers are harsher to all drivers, policies targeting bias have little effect on the aggregate speed gap. We find that racial bias in lenience explains 16% of the minority-white speed gap, and spatial differences in race-blind lenience explain 30% of the gap.

Suggested Citation

  • Felipe Goncalves & Steven Mello, 2017. "A Few Bad Apples? Racial Bias in Policing," Working Papers 608, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section..
  • Handle: RePEc:pri:indrel:608
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    7. Abrahams, Scott, 2020. "Officer differences in traffic stops of minority drivers," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 67(C).
    8. Markus Eyting, 2022. "Why do we Discriminate? The Role of Motivated Reasoning," Working Papers 2208, Gutenberg School of Management and Economics, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz.
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    11. Heller, Sara B., 2022. "When scale and replication work: Learning from summer youth employment experiments," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 209(C).
    12. Pradhi Aggarwal & Alec Brandon & Ariel Goldszmidt & Justin Holz & John List & Ian Muir & Gregory Sun & Thomas Yu, 2022. "High-frequency location data shows that race affects the likelihood of being stopped and fined for speeding," Natural Field Experiments 00764, The Field Experiments Website.
    13. Brendon McConnell & Kegon Teng Kok Tan & Mariyana Zapryanova, 2023. "How do Parole Boards Respond to Large, Societal Shocks? Evidence from the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks," Working Papers 2023-010, Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group.
    14. David Bjerk, 2022. "Does greater police funding help catch more murderers?," Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 19(3), pages 528-559, September.
    15. Stephan Schneider & Sven Kunze, 2021. "Disastrous Discretion: Ambiguous Decision Situations Foster Political Favoritism," KOF Working papers 21-491, KOF Swiss Economic Institute, ETH Zurich.
    16. Travova, Ekaterina, 2023. "Under pressure? Performance evaluation of police officers as an incentive to cheat," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 212(C), pages 1143-1172.
    17. Eyting, Markus, 2022. "Why do we discriminate? The role of motivated reasoning," SAFE Working Paper Series 356, Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE.
    18. Georgiou, Georgios, 2022. "Do correctional authorities treat all offenders equally? Evaluating the use of a risk assessment instrument," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 69(C).
    19. Dai, Min & Li, Hui, 2023. "Hometown favoritism in traffic citations: Evidence from China," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 229(C).
    20. Makofske, Matthew, 2020. "Pretextual Traffic Stops and Racial Disparities in their Use," MPRA Paper 100792, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    21. Christian Traxler & Libor Dušek, 2023. "Fines, Non-Payment, and Revenues: Evidence from Speeding Tickets," Berlin School of Economics Discussion Papers 0023, Berlin School of Economics.
    22. Dalia Ghanem & D'esir'e K'edagni & Ismael Mourifi'e, 2023. "Evaluating the Impact of Regulatory Policies on Social Welfare in Difference-in-Difference Settings," Papers 2306.04494, arXiv.org, revised Jun 2023.
    23. Aaron Chalfin & Michael LaForest & Jacob Kaplan, 2021. "Can Precision Policing Reduce Gun Violence? Evidence from “Gang Takedowns” in New York City," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 40(4), pages 1047-1082, September.
    24. Francesco Barilari & Diego Zambiasi, 2023. "Political Campaigning, and Racial Discrimination in Arrests for Drugs," Trinity Economics Papers tep0223, Trinity College Dublin, Department of Economics.
    25. Martti Kaila, 2024. "How Do People React to Income-Based Fines? Evidence from Speeding Tickets Discontinuities," CESifo Working Paper Series 11064, CESifo.

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    More about this item

    Keywords

    Discrimination; Racial Bias; Police; Traffic Enforcement;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • J71 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor Discrimination - - - Hiring and Firing
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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