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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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What do we owe Raf & Laura Brannigan?

Self Control is one of the defining music hits of the 1980s. It was first released in 1984 by Italian singer-songwriter Raf (his first single). It was also released almost contemporaneously by Laura Brannigan.

The song includes these lyrics:

You take my self you take my self control
I I live among the creatures of the night
I haven’t got the will to try and fight

The first line of the quote I provided is wrong. Not in the sense that those words aren’t lyrics for the song, but in the sense that a person’s self-control does not get taken by someone else. I’ve stumbled on a number of papers published recently that noted something along these lines:

While the link between low self-control and several behavioral and social problems is widely supported, debate remains regarding the stability of and the genetic and environmental sources of variation in self-control. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class 1998–1999 restricted data set, a sample of 360 twins was compared to a sample of 423 non-twins in order to examine the stability in self-control. The twin sample was also used to examine the genetic and environmental sources of stability in self-control. Findings indicated two stable classes for both the twin and singleton samples, and substantial stability in average self-control from kindergarten through fifth grade in both samples. The ACE decomposition model indicated strong genetic contributions to self-control (76%) with the remaining variation attributed to non-shared environment. Overall, the data suggest that self-control is identifiable early in life, stable across childhood, increasingly influenced by genes, and thus, is a critical focus for early intervention.

And it turns out that other papers show that self control really matters:

Policy-makers are considering large-scale programs aimed at self-control to improve citizens’ health and wealth and reduce crime. Experimental and economic studies suggest such programs could reap benefits. Yet, is self-control important for the health, wealth, and public safety of the population? Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control. Effects of children’s self-control could be disentangled from their intelligence and social class as well as from mistakes they made as adolescents. In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity.

Its been pointed out before that some aspect of criminality is also genetic. And criminal tendencies are also tied to behaviors that can increase the likelihood someone is poor.

All of which leads to some ethical dilemmas. I think most people are comfortable with the idea that society works better if there is a safety net that helps people who through no fault of their own are down on their luck. The “through no fault of their own” argument applies very easily to a hard working conscientious guy whose job got outsourced to China. Does it apply as smoothly to someone who accepts his natural tendency to avoid labor altogether? What about the 17 year old whose lack of self-control caused him to fail several grades and landed him in juvie for assault? Do you want him in the same classroom with your eighth grader?

But those are the stuff of late night college BS sessions. Try this out if you want a thorny problem… We all know there is a genetic component to homosexuality. What we don’t all know is that there is also a genetic component to homophobia. The study of genes is in its early stages and it is naive to think there aren’t many other examples of “trait X is heritable” and “dislike of trait X is heritable.” Can we all just get along if our genes can’t all get along?

The universe does not have a sense of humor.

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