Police Decision Making

Police officers are gatekeepers of the criminal court system and must make a number of critical decisions during their interactions with citizens and in the performance of their duties. To make decisions, officers use normative criteria such as responsibility and blameworthiness as well as pragmatic and efficiency criteria such as the likelihood of conviction, the amount of time and effort needed, and the organizational barriers that may prevent a desired result. Because officers have much legal authority and make many critical decisions that affect citizens’ liberty and safety, it is important to understand how officers arrive at their decisions and the societal consequences of these decisions.

This article examines what criteria police officers use to make these decisions and what community, departmental, and personal factors affect how they interpret situations, interact with citizens, decide when to stop citizens, ask for consent to search, conduct searches, informally warn suspects, arrest suspects, and decide whether suspects are lying during questioning or interrogation. Using schema theory to examine officers’ decision frames, this entry discusses racial disparity in police decision making. Much research supports the contention that compared with Caucasians, African Americans are disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, and subjected to physical force. Cultural stereotypes and organizational policies contribute to this racial disparity. This entry explores this research on racial disparities, particularly with regard to surveillance, the decision to arrest, and the use of force.

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Police work traditionally has been reactive and involves responding to citizens’ calls when crimes have already been committed and when community peace has been disrupted. Police duties also involve proactive surveillance to detect criminal activity as it is being committed; for example, police officers may patrol areas that have high rates of drug dealing, prostitution, or gang-related crimes and must decide when to intervene and whether to arrest offenders. Similarly, officers may park their car to detect speeders; officers must decide which of the speeders to pull over, whether to give the speeder a ticket, and whether to search citizens or vehicles for possible illegal contraband such as drugs or weapons. Community policing, where police officers are assigned certain neighborhoods to patrol using bikes or walking, is part of proactive police work and has been implemented to prevent criminal activity and to improve the relationship between the police and citizens so that citizens are more likely to report crimes or suspicious activity to the police. Thus, it is important to examine decision making in both proactive and reactive policy work.

Officers’ Decision Frames and Response Styles

Researchers have investigated whether police officers have certain operational styles, developed from their general attitudes regarding justice and law enforcement duties, that guide their decisions to arrest. Several studies have examined three overarching response styles: (1) the tough law enforcer, who arrests serious criminals and rule violators; (2) the negotiator, who emphasizes maintaining community peace and often uses mediation and other informal methods to resolve disturbances; and (3) the rule follower, who bases arrest decisions on organizational policies or legal statutes. Research generally has found that officers do not consistently decide whether to arrest on the basis of their operational ideals or overall attitudes. Moreover, officers have much discretion on how to interpret organizational policies and legal statutes because such policies are difficult to apply consistently to ambiguous situations.

Rather than operational styles that are linked to overall attitudes and personalities, schema theory provides a more empirically supported framework to understand how officers make decisions. Schema theory suggests that officers have several possible guiding decision frames about how to investigate incidents, what information is most critical, and what questions should be asked to arrive at a decision. The situational context and characteristics of the incident determine which decision frame is given priority in a specific situation. Two major decision frames are the normative frame and the efficiency frame. In the normative frame, officers focus on who is responsible for the harm; in the efficiency frame, they focus on whether there is sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction, the repercussions if they do not arrest, and the credibility of the witnesses.

The number of years on the force has been shown to be the only consistent officer characteristic related to arrest decisions. More experienced officers, compared with rookie officers, tend to resolve calls more often without making an arrest, and experienced officers make fewer arrests because they are more likely to assign greater importance to efficiency and pragmatic concerns. Efficiency or pragmatic framing also can explain why officers often arrest mentally ill persons who have not committed crimes but may need involuntary commitment to a mental health hospital. Several interview studies indicate that officers are frustrated by barriers to the mental health system, by the amount of time they spend off the streets and in hospitals trying to obtain an involuntary commitment, and by the hospital staff’s releasing individuals back on the streets within a few days of admittance. All these system barriers indicate to the officers that involuntary commitment decisions are neither pragmatic nor efficient decisions.

In proactive community policing duties, college-educated officers may have better performance and achieve greater neighborhood trust of the police. Studies have found that compared with high-school-educated officers, college-educated officers have higher citizen satisfaction ratings, fewer citizen complaints, and higher job performance ratings from their superiors. Based on empirical research, college-educated officers are more likely to be open minded, to have better communication skills, and to be less authoritarian.

Several studies have examined whether African American officers and Caucasian officers differ in their arrest rates, use of force, and other attitudes. Among the findings are that general attitudes toward the job are similar for African American and Caucasian officers. Research has generally found that African American and Caucasian officers do not differ on arrest rates. Only one study, however, has examined whether they differ on the criteria they use to make arrest decisions. Caucasian and African American officers both were more likely to arrest suspects if they were juveniles, visibly intoxicated, or disrespectful toward officers or if the offense was a felony. However, African American officers also considered other criteria that Caucasian officers did not: whether a crime was committed in their presence, the number of bystanders witnessing the encounter, whether the suspect was male, and the length of the officer’s time on the job. Recent research has found that African American and Caucasian officers have a similar likelihood of arresting African American suspects, but African American officers are significantly less likely to arrest Caucasian suspects. Thus, racial disparity in arrest rates occurs among both Caucasian and African American officers.

Police Decisions and Racial Disparity

Racial stereotypes are widespread and permeate the media, the schools, the business community, and the criminal justice system. Individuals of all races are aware of negative racial stereotypes—for example, that African Americans are more prone to violence and more likely to be involved in the use and sale of illegal drugs. Even when individual officers are not prejudiced against African Americans or members of other ethnic minorities, these cultural stereotypes affect how police officers perform their duties. Furthermore, in attempting to reduce the distribution of illegal drugs, some studies indicate that police departments place disproportionate resources in areas where there is a high concentration of ethnic minorities. For example, based on a needle exchange survey and ethnographic observations of two open-air drug markets in Seattle, researchers determined the racial composition of dealers who distributed heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, crack, or ecstasy. In this study, the majority of drug dealers (more than 80%) who distributed heroin, methamphetamine, or ecstasy were Caucasian; about equal proportions of Caucasians, Latinos, and African Americans sold cocaine; and only in the distribution of crack cocaine were African Americans more frequently dealers (47%) than Caucasians (41%). In comparing the racial composition of dealers with Seattle’s police departments arrest data for the sale of these five illicit drugs during the same time period, researchers found that African Americans were disproportionately arrested for drug dealing: 64% of all arrests involved African Americans, 17% involved Caucasians, and 14% involved Latinos. Although only 47% of crack cocaine dealers were African Americans, 79% of those arrested for dealing crack cocaine were African Americans; only 8.6% of arrestees were Caucasians, even though Caucasians comprised 41% of crack cocaine dealers. Similar and significant racial disparity was found for heroin dealers. Two police department mandates contribute to this substantial racial disparity in arrests for drug dealing: greater emphasis on formally arresting crack cocaine dealers than dealers of other illicit drugs and greater surveillance resources in ethnically diverse open-air drug markets. A greater propensity of violence among crack cocaine dealers cannot explain the departments’ allocation of resources; arrests of crack dealers were less likely to involve gun seizures than arrests of other illicit drug dealers, and the police department noted that violence was typically not associated with crack dealing at the time of the study. Second, the primarily Caucasian open-air drug market received undersurveillance as determined by the amount of drug and other crime activity, whereas the ethnically diverse open-air market received oversurveillance, and 25 times more arrests were made there. Higher crime rates or a higher number of citizens’ complaints cannot explain the police department’s oversurveillance of the ethnically diverse market. The racial disparity also cannot be explained by the possibility that Caucasian drug dealing occurs in more private indoor areas. African Americans were more likely to be arrested in both outdoors and indoors areas and also were overrepresented in arrests in both the primarily Caucasian open-air and the ethnically diverse open-air drug markets. Other research also found that African Americans were more likely to be disproportionately arrested for drug possession.

Police officers may follow these organizational mandates to concentrate resources in specific areas, and then the cultural racial stereotype, which may not be a part of conscious awareness, may affect their choice of which drug dealers to arrest. Research does not show that African Americans are more likely to be drug dealers or users, nor does it indicate that African Americans are more likely to be caught because their activity is more visible. Instead, officers follow organizational mandates that increase the chances of perceiving drug dealing by African Americans, and even in primarily Caucasian open-air drug markets, officers’ unconscious awareness of cultural stereotypes may direct their attention toward African American dealers. In short, cultural stereotypes may affect officers who are not racially prejudiced.

Much research suggests that young African American and Latino men are more likely to be stopped, given traffic citations, searched or asked for a consent search, arrested, and subjected to officers’ use of force than are Caucasian men. Racial profiling, begun during the U.S. government’s “war on drugs,” is a controversial decision strategy in law enforcement that has reinforced using race as a criterion in law enforcement decisions. The use of racial profiling as a legitimate decision strategy is now being widely questioned. Numerous studies suggest that officers pull over African American drivers less for obvious traffic violations and more on the basis of race (e.g., “driving while black/brown”). Research further does not sup-port that the stopping and subsequently higher rate of searching of minority offenders indicates a higher rate of illegal contraband possession. Thus, minorities compared with Caucasians do not have a higher rate of actual drug possession. Studies have found that minority drivers are not more likely to have illegal drugs or weapons than are Caucasian drivers, and a few studies have found that searched Caucasian drivers are significantly more likely to have illegal contraband than are minority drivers.

Police Decisions on the Use of Force

During questioning of potential suspects, police officers must decide when and how much physical force to use to stop citizens who are perceived as resisting or disrespecting their legal authority. Police departments receive much negative publicity when officers decide to use what the public perceives as excessive force to restrain citizens or when officers incorrectly perceive resistance and use weapons to force citizens to comply. For example, in recent years, media reports have revealed incidents in which officers, using batons, flashlights, and fists, have beaten citizens who are having seizures because they incorrectly labeled the citizens’ actions as unresponsive and resistant. Officers also have used inappropriate force when they misperceived mentally ill persons’ actions as disrespectful and unresponsive to their legal authority; media publicity about such incidents has served as an impetus for police departments to develop special units, strategies, and training to improve officers’ interactions with mentally ill citizens. It is difficult to examine what situational and officers’ characteristics contribute to the use of excessive or incorrect force because individuals cannot agree (except at the most extreme) on what actions constitute excessive force. However, based on surveys completed by police officers, between 13% and 20% of officers reported having observed a fellow officer using considerably more physical force than was necessary or harass a citizen based most likely on his or her race.

Good police performance requires the ability to know when to use any coercive verbal statements or physical actions. Officers may use coercive actions, most of which are verbal, in attempting to get persons to comply with their orders and acknowledge their legitimate legal authority. Studies of the use of force often examine verbal commands and threats as well as physical force, with physical force sometimes ordered from least to more severe. Several studies have found that officers are more likely to arrest and use force against suspects who have a disrespectful demeanor than suspects who are respectful. The influence of suspects’ demeanor on arrest and use-of-force decisions cannot be accounted for entirely by disrespectful suspects being more likely to commit crimes during their interactions with officers. Demeanor also receives significant consideration in officers’ decisions to take juvenile offenders into custody. Demeanor and citizens’ resistance also contribute to officers’ use of verbal and physical force. That is, officers are more likely to use verbal or physical force against suspects who resist responding to commands or questions and/or who are more verbally or physically aggressive toward police officers. Studies have determined a relationship between citizens’ resistance and officers’ use of force, but it is unclear how often officers use verbal threats or physical force against nonresisting and respectful citizens.

Research has shown inconsistent findings on whether minority offenders are more likely to resist answering officers’ questions or complying with commands and to use verbal or physical aggression against officers. Given the mixed results, the racial disparity in the use of force against minority offenders cannot be explained by offenders’ propensity to resist or use verbal or physical aggression.

Several situational characteristics are related to officers’ use of force. Officers have indicated that departmental policies concerning use of force affect their decisions to use force. In addition, studies have found that officers are more likely to use verbal coercion or physical force in situations involving conflict, against intoxicated suspects or offenders who have a weapon, when there is evidence of a crime, when two or more officers are present, when bystanders are not present, and when they are attempting to prevent crime or intervene while a crime is in progress. Officers may be more likely to use force when other officers are pres-ent because they have witnesses who can testify that the force was reasonable given the suspect’s behavior; similarly, the presence of a greater number of bystanders reduces the likelihood of officers using verbal or physical force, because it increases the chance of wit-nesses testifying against them. Younger suspects and those of a lower socioeconomic status have a greater chance of both verbal and physical force being used against them. Minorities and male suspects are more likely to experience physical force but are not more likely to experience verbal coercion.

Some officer characteristics are related to the use of force. Officers who have job burnout reported more support for the use of force, reported greater frequency of using force, and were more likely to be independently observed using force. Officers with a greater number of years on the police force are less likely to use verbal or physical force. Compared with officers having only a high school education, officers with a college degree and those with some college experience are less likely to use coercive verbal demands or threats, and officers with a college degree are less likely to use physical force.


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