Is Police Misconduct Contagious?

Working Paper: Is Police Misconduct Contagious? Non-Trivial Null Findings from Dallas, TX. (w/ David S. Kirk; Revise & Resubmit)

Objectives: Understanding if police misconduct might be “contagious” is vital to identifying efficacious paths to police reform. Accordingly, we investigate whether an officer’s propensity to engage in misconduct is associated with her direct interaction with colleagues who have themselves engaged in misbehavior in the past.

Methods: Recognizing the importance of analyzing the actual social networks spanning a police force, we use data on collaborative responses to 1,165,136 “911” calls for service on the part of 3,475 Dallas Police Department (DPD) officers across 2013 and 2014 to construct daily networks of front-line interaction. We relate these cooperative networks to reported and formally sanctioned misconduct on the part of the DPD officers during the same time period using repeated-events survival models.

Results: Estimates (non-causal; correlational) indicate that the risk of a DPD officer engaging in misconduct is not associated with formally documented improper behavior on the part of her ad hoc, on-the-scene partners. Rather, a greater risk of misconduct is associated with past misbehavior, officer-specific proneness, the neighborhood context of patrol, and, in some case, officer race, while departmental tenure is a mitigating factor.

Conclusions: Our observational findings — based on one large police department in the United States — ultimately suggest that actor-based explanations of police deviance should not be summarily dismissed in favor of accounts emphasizing a sub-culture of widespread negative socialization. Accordingly, interventions focused on individual officers, including the termination of deviant police, may be fruitful for curtailing police misconduct — where early interventions focused on new offenders may be key to avoiding the escalation of deviance.

Image of Police Saluting by Igor Ovsyannykov via Pixabay