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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.

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Poverty, Crime and Causality

I was bouncing around my twitter feed and landed on this tweet which in turn took me to a paper entiteld Childhood family income, adolescent violent criminality and substance misuse: quasi-experimental total population study. The paper appeared in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2014. Here’s the basic summary:

Low socioeconomic status in childhood is a well-known
predictor of subsequent criminal and substance misuse
behaviours but the causal mechanisms are questioned.

To investigate whether childhood family income predicts subsequent violent criminality and substance misuse and whether the associations are in turn explained by unobserved familial risk factors.

Nationwide Swedish quasi-experimental, family-based study following cohorts born 1989–1993 (ntotal = 526 167, ncousins = 262 267, nsiblings = 216 424) between the ages of 15 and 21 years.

Children of parents in the lowest income quintile experienced a seven-fold increased hazard rate (HR) of being convicted of violent criminality compared with peers in the highest quintile (HR = 6.78, 95% CI 6.23–7.38). This association was entirely accounted for by unobserved familial risk factors (HR = 0.95, 95% CI 0.44–2.03). Similar pattern of effects was found for substance misuse.

There were no associations between childhood family income and subsequent violent criminality and substance misuse once we had adjusted for unobserved familial risk factors.

Declaration of interest

Because the British (let alone the Swedes) seem incapable of doing proper American, it might be worth translating the paper into something we English speakers can follow. Here goes. The study looked at 526,167 Swedish kids, or about 89% of all kids born in Sweden from 1989 to 1993. (Kids were excluded from the sample if they died or emigrated before their 15th birthday, if they were born with birth defects, if they couldn’t be linked to their birth parents, or if the authors were unable to determine the parents’ level of income.)

The authors found (no surprise to anyone) that kids born into the lowest income twentieth percentile of the population are far more likely to get convicted of violent criminal activity or become substance abusers. But, by accounting for changes in a family’s income over time and how that affected (or didn’t) criminality and substance abuse outcomes of siblings and cousins, the authors were able to conclude that a family’s income was not associated with violent criminal activity or substance abuse except insofar as income was being driven by some other unobserved factor(s) that itself was associated with negative outcomes. That unobserved factor (or factors) runs in families.

The authors are not as clear as I’d like in describing the data adjustment, and the process they use is not one I have employed myself at any point.  But if I understand the limited description of the process correctly, they are basically noting that a kid in a 60th percentile income family is no less likely to become a criminal than his younger brother will be several years later when the family has dropped to below the 20th percentile of income.   Furthermore, within each income level, crime tends to run in families.

To take the paper’s findings a bit further, there is a serious implication here: it isn’t so much that poverty drives people into crime, but that families whose members have a tendency toward criminal behavior have an increased likelihood of ending up poor. Perhaps those who lack empathy are both more likely to commit crimes and less willing or able to behave in ways that allow them to get and retain good jobs. Of course, some of the smarter criminals can fake empathy enough to do quite well for themselves. It is also important to note that most poor people are not criminal. Nevertheless, the reason crime correlates with poverty is not that poverty leads to crime, but rather that for a not insignificant piece of the population, criminal tendencies are associated with traits that increase a person’s likelihood of being in poverty.


update…  grammatical error in the last line of the post corrected, July 7, 5:52 AM PST

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How Much Crime Do Illegal Immigrants Commit?

You probably never heard of SCAAP, the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.  But I expect it will be showing up in the news a lot pretty soon.

This is what it does:

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, administers SCAAP, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). SCAAP provides federal payments to states and localities that incurred correctional officer salary costs for incarcerating undocumented criminal aliens who have at least one felony or two misdemeanor convictions for violations of state or local law, and who are incarcerated for at least 4 consecutive days during the reporting period.

Translation: state and local jurisdictions are compensated by the Federal Government for expenses incurred for holding criminal aliens. Why do the Feds pay? To quote from a letter signed by California’s Congressional delegation to key members of the House Appropriations Committee a few years ago:

As you know, SCAAP is a grant program that reimburses states and local governments for the cost of incarcerating undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes. By law, the federal government is ultimately responsible for immigration enforcement, including the incarceration of undocumented criminal offenders. When this is not possible, the law requires the federal government to compensate state and local governments for their incarceration costs.

So… the Federal Government is responsible for immigration enforcement, which is to say (in this context), preventing illegal immigration. Therefore, if a non-immigration related crime is committed by someone the Feds failed to keep out of the country, the Feds compensates state and local law enforcement.

The number of prisoners for which the SCAAP program provides compensation are hard to find. It is almost as if those figures are kept deliberately opaque. However, according to the General Accounting Office:

The number of criminal aliens in federal prisons in fiscal year 2010 was about 55,000, and the number of SCAAP criminal alien incarcerations in state prison systems and local jails was about 296,000 in fiscal year 2009 (the most recent data available), and the majority were from Mexico.

The same GAO document tells us that there were about 10.8 million aliens with undocumented status in the US in 2009. 296,000 is 2.74% of 10.8 million, so about 2.74% of the aliens with undocumented status were incarcerated in the state prison system and local jails that year.

How does that compare to the population at large? According to Appendix Table 2 of this Bureau of Justice Statistics report, in 2009, the state prison population was 1,319,426 and the local jail population was 767,620 for a total of 2,087,046.

The US non-institutional population at the time was about 301,500,000, so add in the 2 million for state and local prisoners, and add in about 205K Federal prisoners, and you have a US population of about 303,705,000.

2 million and change divided by 303.7 million comes to less than 7 tenths of a percent of the US population ending up in state and local prisons. That is well under the 2.7% for the undocumented aliens. Or…illegal immigrants are around four times more likely to be imprisoned in a state or local jurisdiction than the population as a whole. (Note that this ratio is probably even more lopsided since SCAAP only applies to aliens with at least four consecutive days of time served.)

Now, illegal immigrants having 4x everyone else’s crime rate is a far cry from the often repeated claim that “illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native born.” Thoroughly contradicting popular wisdom makes for an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. So let’s see if we can find some additional support for the claim.

As luck would have, it isn’t just state and local jurisdictions that imprison people. The Federal government does it too. The 2015 US Sentencing Commission Report states that:

A majority of federal offenders are United States citizens (58.5%). Most non-citizen offenders committed an immigration offense (66.0%).

So let’s assume that those who committed an immigration offense are innocent of any other offense, and disregard them completely.

Endnote 13 of the same document tells us:

Non-citizens primarily are convicted of immigration crimes. Non-citizens were the offenders in only 14.1 percent of all other federal crimes in fiscal year 2015.

According to Pew Research undocumented aliens accounted for about 3.5% of the total population in 2015.

So 3.5% of the population represents 14.1% of Federal prisoners incarcerated for non-immigration related crimes. That is to say, illegal immigrants were four times as likely to be in a Federal prison for a non-immigration related crime as the rest of the population in 2015, which is about the same proportion we see in state and local jurisdictions in 2009. Coincidence?

You don’t have to like something for it to be true. But the relative crime rates of the illegal population are what they are. Now perhaps you don’t think crime rates matter to the illegal immigration debate. Fine. That’s a topic for another day.

What I think is more topical, though, is that sooner or later the Trump administration is going to figure out that SCAAP exists, that it is part of the Federal Budget, and that it can be used as a cudgel against the sanctuary movement. And frankly, stopped clocks being right twice a day and all, they will have a point when they do so.

Demanding compensation from the Feds’ for their failure to enforce a law while simultaneously preventing the Feds from doing so seems very squirrelly. I am no attorney, but it seems like the sort of argument even the team Trump has put together might be able to win in court.

Corrections (May 29, 6:45 AM PST)

1. Reader Longtooth notes that the GAO link mentioned in the post is severed. This one works as of this writing.
2. Reader Longtooth also notes that I missed something in that document – not all criminal aliens are in the SCAAP program. For more detail, see the comments, but, about two-thirds of the criminal aliens are either known to be in this country illegally, or “unknown.” The latter group is believed by the states to be in this country illegally, and eligible for SCAAP funding. As far as I can tell, they are essentially aliens who cannot be shown to be in the country legally but have not, at the time they were arrested, come to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. I think this needs a further look, but based on various statements in the GAO report, I now believe that illegal aliens are not 4X more likely to end up in state and local jails, but rather somewhere between a bit more than one and a bit less than 3 times more likely.

Leaving aside the question of crime rates among the undocumented, there is the issue that the SCAAP program deals involves taxpayer dollars. This information should be readily available, whether from the Justice Department or the General Accounting Office.

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