A recent study has found a potential association between the political affiliation of white police officers and racial bias in their policing behaviors, particularly towards Black motorists. The findings, published in the American Sociological Review, reveal an increase in biases during the rise of certain political movements.
The topic of police bias and racial disparities in law enforcement practices has been a focal point of both academic research and public discourse for several years. Prior studies have delved into various factors that might influence these disparities, such as training protocols, personal experiences, or systemic structures. However, this new research focuses on a somewhat unexplored angle: how an officer’s political affiliation might affect their policing behaviors.
The impetus for this study stems from the intense polarization and racial tensions seen in the U.S. in recent years. Particularly, given the backdrop of highly publicized police incidents involving Black individuals and the divisive rhetoric during election campaigns, there is a question about whether political identities — traditionally private — play out in public service roles. This study sought to uncover if there is a discernible pattern in police behavior based on their political leanings.
Researchers analyzed data from the Florida Highway Patrol (FLHP) from January 1, 2012 to December 30, 2020, focusing on officers and their party affiliations. The primary methodology involved assessing whether there was a correlation between the officers’ political affiliation (Democratic or Republican), which was obtained through match-checking Florida voter records, and the frequency with which they stopped and searched Black motorists compared to white motorists. Over 1,000 Florida traffic officer behaviors were tracked over a period spanning from 2012 to 2020, offering a comprehensive overview.
The results revealed that white Republican officers were more likely than their white Democratic counterparts to search Black motorists whom they had stopped, as opposed to white motorists. Moreover, while the difference in behavior between white Republican and white Democratic officers remained relatively stable from 2012 to 2020, a time when the United States witnessed a series of highly publicized police killings of Black men and women, there was a notable increase in the racial disparity displayed by white officers (compared to non-white officers) in general over this period.
This growth coincided with events like the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the election of President Donald Trump — suggesting that broader societal tensions may have had great influence on on-duty behaviors.
It is crucial to interpret these findings alongside their possible limitations. These include the fact that the observational study cannot conclusively establish a causal link between political affiliation and biased behavior. For instance, it may be possible that officers with inherent biases might choose to affiliate with a particular political party, rather than the affiliation causing the bias.
Furthermore, while the Florida Highway Patrol’s data offers a wide spectrum of behaviors, it may not be representative of all police departments — the FLHP primarily oversees traffic, and may not reflect the complexities or situational challenges of urban policing. Overall, this research provides valuable insights into potential factors influencing police behavior — but further studies in varied contexts will be essential to understanding the full scope of the relationship between political affiliation and policing biases.
“When we think of the relationship between party politics and the criminal justice system, we tend to think about how competing legislative agendas change criminal justice institutions and how these changes exacerbate or mitigate racial disparities. However, the present study shows that party politics interact with the criminal justice system through the behaviors of street-level bureaucrats,” the study concludes.
“Police officers are unusual in the breadth of their legal authority, but they are not the only street-level bureaucrats who work in the shadow of contentious partisan debate. Recently, national and local politics have turned toward public-school curricula. Just as officers are directly implicated in issues of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, teachers are implicated in debates over the discussion of institutional racism, slavery, and sexual identity in public school curricula. Future research should examine how partisanship is associated with the behavior of public educators and other street-level bureaucrats.”
The study, “The Politics of Police”, was authored by Samuel Thomas Donahue.