According to a study published in the American Journal of Political Science, female police officers are much less likely to decide to search a driver’s car during a routine traffic stop compared to male officers. Interestingly, despite conducting fewer searches, female officers uncover just as much contraband as their male colleagues.
Political scientists have discussed how negative interactions with police can lead to perceptions of injustice, lack of trust in law enforcement, and negative attitudes toward governmental and political institutions. This has led scholars to question what types of citizens are more or less likely to interact with police, focusing on factors such as a citizen’s age and race. But study authors Kelsey Shoub and her team say that these studies have neglected an important aspect of the equation — an officer’s characteristics. In other words, what types of officers are more or less likely to interact with citizens?
Shoub and her colleagues decided to examine how an officer’s sex might influence their behavior toward citizens. Specifically, they opted to investigate how male and female officers differ in their search behavior during routine traffic stops. During a traffic stop, a police officer pulls over a motorist under the suspicion that they have committed a crime or are in violation of the law. While a search of the vehicle is sometimes necessary during a traffic stop (e.g., the officer has a search warrant), most of the time a search is within the discretion of the officer.
The researchers analyzed data from over four million traffic stops conducted in Florida and North Carolina. The data came from two sources: the Charlotte Police Department in North Carolina and the Florida Highway Patrol.
An analysis of these records found that, among both agencies, female officers conducted fewer searches compared to male officers. Based on data from the Charlotte Police Department, male officers were 225% more likely to search a car than female officers. Based on data from the Florida Highway Patrol, male officers were 272% more likely to search a car than female officers.
While it was clear that women on the force were searching fewer cars, they did not appear to be uncovering any less contraband (e.g., drugs, alcohol, illegal weapons) than male officers. The Florida Highway Patrol records included data on whether or not contraband was confiscated during a search, and an analysis of this data found that female officers uncovered contraband 41.5% of the time, while male officers uncovered contraband 29.9% of the time.
On average, female officers were 10% more likely than male officers to uncover contraband at a given stop — even after taking into account variables such as officer experience, officer race, age of the driver, and reason for the traffic stop. This finding suggests that female officers were simply more accurate when making the decision to search a car. In other words, they conducted fewer unecessary searches than their male colleagues.
The study authors suggest that these sex differences may come down to differences in the way male and female officers view their roles. Some scholars have suggested that female officers are more community oriented, and thus more likely to behave in ways that support the community and less likely to engage in negative interactions with citizens.
“One feasible explanation for our findings may be that female officers are more concerned with being “correct” when they make the decision to conduct a search,” Shoub and colleagues write. “This difference in decision calculus would help to explain our finding that though women conduct fewer searches, they outperform men on nearly every metric of effectiveness we use in this article.”
The researchers contend that their findings offer evidence that sex differences in police officer behavior are not limited to gendered contexts (e.g., reports of sexual assault). The findings suggest that having more women in police work might lead to better police-citizen interactions, potentially improving citizens’ trust in the justice system.
The study, “Do Female Officers Police Differently? Evidence from Traffic Stops”, was authored by Kelsey Shoub, Katelyn E. Stauffer, and Miyeon Song.