The Political Consequences of Policing: Evidence from New York City

Abstract

This paper explores the effect that municipal policing can exert on politics, and specifically investigates the effect that Stop, Question, and Frisk (SQF) policing has had on voter turnout and candidate choice in New York City. While extant studies of the American criminal justice system have found that mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement negatively impact political participation and engagement, few have explicitly explored policing’s relationship with politics and fewer still consider its mobilizing potential. Mobilizing data from over 2.7 million geo-coded police stops and data from a series of national and municipal elections this paper uncovers a pattern of voter demobilization, voter mobilization, and candidate choice that cannot be anticipated from extant studies in the literature. Specifically, it finds that while concentrated policing was associated with reductions in voter turnout in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections, it was associated with higher rates of turnout in the 2008 presidential election and 2013 Democratic primary and general mayor. Further analysis demonstrates that stopping intensity was strongly associated with candidate choice in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, such that higher rates of policing were positively associated with support for the candidate (John Liu) who advocated for eliminating SQF and less support for the candidate (William Thompson) who supported SQF. Together, these findings highlight the impact that policing can exert on political behavior, characterize the impact that harmful policing policies can play in instigating policing participation and engagement, and foreground the importance of considering local criminal justice policy and political action.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    These high rates of police-citizen contact are attributable, in part, to the relatively recent implementation of aggressive and proactive policing strategies, such as order maintenance, zero-tolerance, and quality of life policing. See Vitale (2008) and Willis (2014).

  2. 2.

    Maciag (2014) has demonstrated that Ferguson, MO was not unique in this practice and many surrounding municipalities in St. Louis County engaged in similar policing practices. Other studies have more generally demonstrated that police departments engage in more revenue generating practices when their cities are under financial distress or their budgets contract (Baicker and Jacobson 2007; Park 2017) suggesting that this practice and potential mechanism may not be limited to Ferguson, MO.

  3. 3.

    No leading Republican candidates opposed the policy (Kaplan 2013).

  4. 4.

    The intuition for this last measure is that stops based on the ostensible furtive movements of the suspect are more likely to be discretionary, be perceived to be illegitimate, and therefore to produce negative interpretive effects. See, for example Goel et al. (2016).

  5. 5.

    Replication data and code are available at https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/AJYEDA

  6. 6.

    The set of interactions recorded in the database still may not constitute the universe of police-citizen interactions, as officers may not document all stops or may incorrectly record interactions (Ridgeway 2007). Nevertheless, the NYPD has significantly enhanced its auditing procedures to make the data more reliable, such that it is deemed reliable enough for use in legal procedures and other scientific analyses (Mummolo 2018; Gelman et al. 2007. See also, Goel et al. 2016).

  7. 7.

    Following McDonald and Popkin (2001), I estimate the voter-eligible population as the population of citizens over the age of 18 who are not incarcerated. New York State allows individuals on probation to vote and automatically restores the voting rights of all individuals who have completed parole, so no correction needs to be made for these populations. Unfortunately, the New York Board of Corrections does not release data that would allow for tract level estimation of the population currently completing parole, which may induce bias into the estimates.

  8. 8.

    The modeling specification is in this manner consistent with the data generating process. I present results from spatial model specifications in the Online Appendix. Results from these modeling specifications are consistent with the results presented in the main text.

  9. 9.

    Michener’s (2013) demonstration of a non-linear relationship between the perception of poor neighborhood quality and some forms of political participation suggests that there may be a non-linear relationship between policing, voter-turnout, and candidate choice. I present analysis of models run including a non-linear specification of the relationship in the Online Appendix. Results from the models are generally consistent with the results presented in the main text, though do suggest some variability in the relationship between policing and turnout across different communities.

  10. 10.

    Obama’s candidacy, for example, may have shifted white racial attitudes towards blacks (Goldman 2012).

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Laniyonu, A. The Political Consequences of Policing: Evidence from New York City. Polit Behav 41, 527–558 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9461-9

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Keywords

  • Policing
  • Stop and Frisk
  • Voter turnout
  • Carceral state
  • Policy threat