Is Police Behavior Getting Worse? The Importance of Data Selection in Evaluating the Police
53 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2019 Last revised: 25 Aug 2019
Date Written: January 28, 2019
Public concern about harmful policing is surging. Governments are paying historic amounts for law enforcement liability. Has police behavior changed? Or is society responding differently? Traditional data sources struggle with this question. Common metrics such as lawsuits and payouts conflate the prevalence and severity of policing harms with the responses of legal actors such as lawyers, judges, and juries. We overcome this problem using a new data source: liability insurance claims. Our dataset contains 23 years of claims against roughly 350 law enforcement agencies that contract with a single insurer. We find that, while lawsuits and payouts have trended upwards over the past decade, insurance claims have declined. We examine multiple potential explanations for these patterns. We argue that, in our sample, police behavior is not getting worse; rather, public responses to policing harms are intensifying. The paper makes a methodological contribution by illustrating the importance of data selection in policing research: police litigation is not representative of the broader universe of claims and adjudicated claims differ systematically from settled ones.
Keywords: Police, police misconduct, copwatching, insurance, municipal liability, civil rights
JEL Classification: K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation