Shootings by Police Officers: Self-Control and More

I stumbled on a recent paper in the Police Quarterly entitled “Quick on the Draw: Assessing the Relationship Between Low Self-Control and Officer-Involved Police Shootings.”

The authors are Christopher M. Donner, Jon Maskaly, Alex R. Piquero, and Wesley G. Jennings from Loyola, U of Texas at Dallas, U of Texas at Dallas and U of South Florida, respectively.

Quoting from the paper:

While the extant literature on police use of deadly force is voluminous, it is fairly limited with regard to the influence of officer characteristics. Moreover, this is the first known study to explore an individual-level criminological theory(i.e., self-control) in the context of police officer-involved shootings. In building on previous studies linking low self-control to negative police behavior more generally (Donner et al., 2016; Donner & Jennings, 2014), this study uses data from a sample of 1,935 Philadelphia police officers to investigate the extent to which Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) general theory can predict officer-involved shootings specifically.

Based on theory and related research, it is hypothesized that officers with lower levels of self-control will be more likely to have used deadly force because police shooting incidents would provide low self-control officers (those who are more impulsive, self-centered, short-sighted, thrill-seeking, and easily provoked) with an opportunity to engage in a behavior that it is often spontaneous, can provide immediate gratification, is adrenaline-inducing, and can provide an outlet for frustration.

Data and Sample
In this study, we use data collected by Greene et al. (2004) for an National Institute of Justice (NIJ)-sponsored study on police integrity in the PPD. The initial collaboration between Temple University and the PPD began in an effort to help create an information system that would assist the PPD with integrity oversight. To aid this process, baseline information concerning possible predictors of negative police behavior was needed. The data set includes background files, academy training records, and personnel information for 2,094 police officers across 17 academy classes from 1991 to 1998. Due to missing files and incomplete academy training among some officers, the final sample of cases included 1,935 officers. Additional methodological details may be found in Greene et al. (2004).

On average, the sample was almost 27 years of age (range: 18–55), and approximately two thirds of the sample was male. There was virtually equal representation among White (44.5%) and Black (46.0%) officers, and the sample included a smaller number of Hispanic (7.4%) and other race or ethnicity (2.1%) officers. The average education level and length of service was 13 and 3 years, respectively. About one fifth (21%) of the sample was married and one tenth (10.9%) had a parent who served in law enforcement. Additional descriptive statistics may be found in Table 1.

The paper goes on:

Dependent Variable
Greene et al. (2004) were granted access to various databases maintained by the PPD Internal Affairs Division and Police Board of Inquiry. Specifically, these databases contained information relating to, among other things, citizen complaints, officer-involved shootings, other internal investigations, and depart-mental disciplinary actions. These data were collected in the Year 2000; thus,officers in the sample had been out of the police academy for roughly 2 to 9 years. The outcome variable of interest in this study, police shootings, is measured dichotomously (0 = No; 1 = Yes) and reflects whether an officer had ever been involved in a police shooting in which they discharged their firearm.

The primary independent variable, low self-control, was constructed from selected behavioral indicators contained within an officer’s Personal Data Questionnaire (PDQ).2 Individuals, who apply to be a Philadelphia Police Officer and pass the entrance examination, are referred to the Background Unit of the police department. Here, qualified applicants are given a PDQ.The PDQ collects self-reported background information, including among other things the applicant’s identifying information, family background, residence history, educational history, employment history, credit history, military record, motor vehicle history, adult and juvenile criminal history, and drug-use history. This information is validated through an interview with a background investigator, a full background investigation, and subsequently a polygraph examination.

The paper continues:

On the basis of the available data, we controlled for 11 relevant variables. Age is a continuous variable indicating the officer’s age and is measured in years. Gender is a dichotomous variable indicating the officer’s gender (0 =Female;1=Male). Officer race was originally measured as a nominal-level variable, but was re-coded into three dichotomous non-White racial variables (Black,Hispanic, and Other) with White serving as the reference category. Marital status was originally measured as a nominal-level variable, and it is recoded into a dichotomous variable, which indicates the officer’s marital status (0 =Not married or separated; 1 =Married, not separated). Military service is a dichotomous variable indicating if the officer has ever served in the armed forces (0 =No; 1 =Yes). Legacy is a dichotomous variable indicating if the officer has a parent who was ever a police officer (0 =No; 1 =Yes). Education is a ratio-level variable and is measured in years of schooling. Length of service is a ratio-level variable indicating an officer’s length of service (coded in months of service; as of the Year 2000 when the dependent variable information was collected). Handgun safety academy test score and handgun academy qualification score are also controlled for as officers have varying degrees of competence with their primary firearm, and both are measured as continuous variables. Finally,we control for arrest history prior to employment, and this variable is measured dichotomously (0 =No history of arrest; 1 =History of at least one prior arrest).

So they ran a simple logistic regression. Its basic econometrics. Here are the results:

Table 3

If you’ve never dealt with this type of analysis, here is their interpretation:

Consequently, these data reveal that officers evincing lower self-control are more likely to use deadly force with their firearm. Additionally, male officers(B=1.612, SE =.386, p<.001), Black officers (B=.755, SE =.247, p<.01), officers with a parent in the profession (B=.671, SE =.297, p<.05), and more experienced officers (B=.028, SE =.008, p<.01) were more likely to have been in a police shooting. Conversely, more educated officers (B=.022,SE =.009, p<.05) were less likely to have been in a police shooting.

Most people don’t read the innards of a paper, which may explain why the conclusion at the very end is more voluminous with the verbage and, simultaneously, far more parsimonious with the findings:

As agents of social control, the police have a very unique role in society. They are empowered to use force—including deadly force—against the citizenry, and incidents of police use of force can have far-reaching consequences. Building upon existing studies, which have linked low self-control to negative police behavior (Donner et al., 2016; Donner & Jennings, 2014), this study utilized data from the PPD in an effort to improve our understanding of police shootings. The results demonstrated empirical validity for Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory as low self-control was found to be predictive of officer shootings.These findings suggest that police officers with lower self-control are more likely to be ‘‘quick on the draw,’’ and this result yields important policy implications for police administrators who have a vested interest in making sure that their officers are extremely prudent in their deadly force decisions.

The conclusions on self-control tie in with my previous post. But there are several variables that are more statistically significant (read: their effects on police shootings were far less likely to be statistical artifacts) than self-control. At least two of them, gender and race, can be applied more broadly than just to police officers. Thus, those two variables can be used a sanity check for the rest of the paper, even if the authors treated those variables the way they would an overbearing relative to whom they owed money.

So let’s do that sanity check, shall we? Now, among Philly police officers males are far more likely to be shooters than women. And when I looked at FBI and Washington Post statistics it turned out that males were also disproportionately likely to be killed by police, to be police personnel, to be police personnel that were killed, to be killers of police officers, and to be homicide “offenders” (to use the anodyne term the FBI seems to prefer). Similarly, this paper finds that Black police officers in Philly are statistically more likely to be shooters than other officers. This also ties in with my earlier post which found that across the US, Black people are more likely to be shot by police, to kill police officers, to be murder offenders, and to be murder victims than one would expect based purely on their share of the population.  This suggests that whatever drives a person to shoot someone else doesn’t magically go away because a person becomes a cop.

Now, to throw some gasoline onto the fire.  Males commit a disproportionate amount of violence. I cannot think of cases, now or in the past, where it hasn’t been true. And we see this same pattern of disproportionate violence by males in our closest primate cousins too. It takes a special person – a something or other studies major, or worse, a professor in the same field – to believe male violence is in any way attributable to anything other than biology and genetics.  And biology and genes are less easily “fixable” than other causes.  Furthermore, any such fixes that might exist are likely to be more laden with unintended consequences.

So… take this paper which purportedly deals with self-control, and everything else you know about violence, and come up with some policy. Just about everyone would agree that having less violence by both civilians and police officers would be a good thing. How do we get there? Show your work. But be forewarned – if you contradict the data you’ll get a failing grade.

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