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White Police Membership in Republican Party Associated with Racial Bias, Study Finds


Newswise — WASHINGTON, DC—The connection between racially prejudiced policing and politics has a long history in the United States. However, in the last 10 years, police organizations have displayed unprecedented support for Republican presidential candidates, and both have organized against social movements focused on addressing racial disparities in police contact. Despite strong connections between law enforcement and party politics, little is known about the relationship between partisan identity and the behavior of police officers.

In his new study, “The Politics of Police,” appearing in the August 2023 issue of The American Sociological Review, author Samuel Thomas Donahue, Columbia University, seeks to gain a fuller understanding of the relationship between politics and the police.

To assess the association between partisan identity and officer behavior, the author used data on more than five million traffic stops made by the Florida Highway Patrol (FLHP) from January 1, 2012, to December 30, 2020. Traffic stops are one of the most common sites of state contact and are essential to the production of state legitimacy. Roughly 40 percent of all police contact with people over the age of 16 occurs during traffic stops, amounting to approximately 20 million people stopped each year. Because of this prevalence, examining racial differences in traffic stops can speak to larger narratives of racial discrimination.

The author linked FLHP stops and citation records, Florida Voter Registration and History files, data from the Uniform Crime Reporting System, and the American Community Survey five-year estimates to create a compiled dataset that includes information on whether each traffic stop resulted in a search, as well as the county, date, and time of the stop; the reason for the stop; the race of the stopped motorist; the race of the involved officer; and the partisan affiliation of the involved officer.

The findings ultimately show that membership in the Republican Party is associated with racial bias among White officers: “White Republican officers exhibit a larger racial disparity than White Democratic officers in their propensity to search motorists whom they have stopped.” In addition, the author also found the “both White Republican and White Democratic officers grew more biased between 2012 and 2020, a period characterized by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of Donald Trump.”

The author suggests that this increase in the Black/White disparity among White officers is due to a change in the behavior of the same White officers.The author acknowledges that, even though the study’s observational design means his findings are primarily descriptive, “they inevitably raise questions about the causal link between partisanship and behavior. Are White Republican officers more biased because they are Republicans? Or do White officers register as Republicans because they are biased?”

“At its core,” says Donahue, “this research reveals that national politics influence how government agencies operate even without overt shifts in policy or regulation. In light of the increasingly public partisan debates over education, health care, and military intervention, we should consider how contemporary political narratives might influence rank-and-file public servants, shaping their behaviors and actions in the absence of direct policy changes.

”For more information and for a copy of the study, contact [email protected].

About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a nonprofit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American Sociological Review is ASA’s flagship journal.



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