Depolicing as Dissent Shirking

Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
Depolicing as Dissent Shirking:
Examining the Effects of Pattern
or Practice Misconduct Reform
on Police Behavior
Joshua Chanin
and Brittany Sheats
Theory suggests that bureaucratic actors express opposition to unfavorable organizational and
policy changes by acting in ways inconsistent with established rules, norms, and community
expectations . Empirical evidence from various professional contexts and geographic locations lends
support to the notion that some public employees have indeed engaged in dissent shirking by
refusing to perform at their best so as to express work-related dissatisfaction. This research relies
on a quasi-experimental design to examine this phenomenon in the context of the police. The
study’s analysis will be driven by a series of autoregressive integrated moving average models in
order to examine the extent to which a form of dissent shirking—“depolicing”—has occurred in
jurisdictions investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice under that agency’s pattern or practice
authority. Despite qualitative support for depolicing under these conditions, this analysis shows no
evidence that officers responded to external criticism and intensified oversight brought on by the
pattern or practice reform process by policing less proactively. Findings are discussed in terms of
both theory and policy.
depolicing, consent decree, pattern or practice reform, arrest, time-series data
Theory suggests that bureaucrats may respond to unfavorable changes to their professional envi-
ronment by dissent shirking, or using their discretionary authority in ways inconsistent with estab-
lished rules, norms, and community expectations (Brehm & Gates, 1999). Anecdotal evidence from
various professional contexts and geographic locations lends support to the notion that some public
actors have neglected to perform at their best as a way of expressing work-related dissatisfaction or
disagreement with policy (e.g., Barbour, 2010; Troy, 2007; Tucker, 2015).
Many of these examples involve the police. One way this resistance is manifest in the context of
law enforcement is in the form of a work slowdown or reduced policing intensity. Officers have
San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Joshua Chanin, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Dr., PSFA 159, San Diego, CA 92182, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2018, Vol. 43(2) 105-126
ª2017 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817704696
spoken candidly about their willingness to police less proactively in response to disputes over wages
(Bates, 1995; McDonald, 1998; McNish, 1980), working conditions (Osher, 2010), and public
criticism (Oliver, 2015; Wolfe & Nix, 2016). This reduction in policing intensity is defined as
“depolicing” (Cooper, 2002). The views of one Seattle Police Department officer clearly illustrate
the concept: “[p]arking under a shady tree to work on a crossword puzzle is a great alternative to
being labeled a racist and being dragged through a n inquest, a review board, an FBI and U.S.
attorney investigation and a lawsuit” (Leo, 2001, para. 2).
The recent and highly publicized increase in violent crime across many of the country’s biggest
cities has injected depolicing into the national conversation (Beckett, 2016). Some have theorized
that this spike in crime is a direct product of the intense criticism of law enforcement following the
shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of
the Baltimore Police Department (Byers, 2014; Goodman & Baker, 2015; Harvey, 2015; Mosendz,
2015). The argument follows that “the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric” demoralized the police in
those cities and across the country, rendering officers less willing to do their jobs aggressively.
Criminal actors were emboldened by the absence of robust law enforcement, leading to increased
incidence of illegal behavior (MacDonald, 2015, p. 3). Critics have called this proposition
“baseless,” suggesting that claims of depolicing are more political and ideological opportunism
than legitimate policy concern (Coates, 2015).
Despite the intensity of the ongoing public discussion, early empirical analysis has failed to
support the contention that public criticism of police behavior has led to depolicing and increased
crime (Pyrooz, Decker, Wolfe, & Shjarback, 2015; Rosenfeld, 2015; Wolfe & Nix, 2016).
This article aims to address several relevant and outstanding issues underlying the debate over
depolicing, including the employment conditions under which depolicing may occur, officer moti-
vations for engaging in depolicing, and the relationship between depolicing and public safety. In so
doing, this research examines depolicing in the context of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ)
pattern or practice initiative, the reform mechanism used to address systemic misconduct in several
of the country’s most prominent law enforcement agencies.
The analysis is driven by a series of interrupted time-series models designed to measure the
causal effects of the DOJ’s reform process on arrest rates in 10 jurisdictions investigated under the
pattern or practice authority. After a review of the relevant theoretical and empirical literature,
several research questions and hypotheses are presented. From there, the data and method are
reviewed and findings addressed. The article concludes with a discussion of implications for policy
and suggestions for future research.
Police Discretion, Oversight, and Pattern or Practice Reform
In 1994, President William J. Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforce-
ment Act. The Crime Act, as it is known, is a sprawling piece of legislation designed to address a
series of justice policy concerns, including police misconduct. Section 14141 of that law makes
unlawful any “pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers ...that deprives persons of
rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United
States” (42 U.S.C. Section 14141). Congress delegated enforcement of this provision to the DOJ,
charging the agency with “eliminate[ing] the pattern or practice” by remedying past police abuse and
preventing future misconduct involving violations of citizens’ civil rights.
Known as the “pattern or practice initiative,” Section 14141 has become the federal government’s
primary mechanism for addressing allegations of systemic police misfeasance (Perez, 2010). Since
the law’s inception, the Special Litigation Section of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has investigated
dozens of pattern or practice allegations, ranging from claims of excessive use of force and biased
106 Criminal Justice Review 43(2)

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