Pulled-Over Rates, Causal Attributions, and Trust in Police

AuthorKevin J. Mullinix,Robert J. Norris
Published date01 June 2019
DOI10.1177/1065912918793946
Date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912918793946
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(2) 420 –434
© 2018 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912918793946
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Article
The topic of race and policing is a seemingly ubiquitous
feature of contemporary news headlines in the United
States. In recent years, a spate of violent interactions
between police and citizens—for example, the officer-
involved shootings of Michael Brown, Walter Scott,
Philando Castile, and more—have generated wide-
spread media coverage and triggered community out-
rage. Underlying many of the media discussions, public
protests, and government investigations are concerns
about the extent to which racial minorities are treated
differently than whites by the American justice system.
Indeed, a growing literature documents racial disparities
in sentencing outcomes, imprisonment, and the rates at
which people are stopped by police (Baumgartner, Epp,
and Shoub 2018; Epp, Maynard-Moody, and Haider-
Markel 2014; Mauer 2006; Tonry 2011). As evidence of
racial disparities in the justice system mounts and gar-
ners increasing media attention (e.g., Kahn and Kirk
2015; Lowery 2016; McKinley 2014; Sides 2018), there
is concern that trust in police is eroding and the justice
system may be facing a crisis of legitimacy (Braga
2016; Natarajan 2014; National Institute of Justice n.d.).
Furthermore, the citizenry’s attitudes toward govern-
ment agents—and perceptions of law enforcement in
particular—have implications for government legiti-
macy in a representative democracy (Theobold and
Haider-Markel 2009).
While it seems intuitive that information about racial
disparities in the justice system would have consequences
for attitudes toward law enforcement, there are relatively
few direct tests of such effects. In this paper, we analyze
the extent to which information about disparities in the
rates at which people are pulled over for minor traffic
violations (i.e., pulled-over rates) affects trust in police.
To understand this relationship, we incorporate insights
from attribution theory (Heider 1944, 1958; Weiner
1985), which posits that people differ in their beliefs
about the cause of an observed outcome and that these
different causal attributions moderate attitudes and
behavior. For example, beliefs about the cause of poverty
shape attitudes toward government programs aimed at
helping the poor (Iyengar 1991). Other causal attributions
influence support for capital punishment (Peffley and
Hurwitz 2007), same-sex marriage (Haider-Markel and
Joslyn 2008), and welfare policies (T. E. Nelson 1999).
Such attributions may be equally important for views of
law enforcement. We suggest that individuals differ in the
cause they attribute to racial disparities in the criminal
justice system—specifically, in pulled-over rates—and
that these different causes have important implications
for trust in police and responsiveness to information.
In two survey experiments, we find substantial differ-
ences in beliefs about the primary cause of racial
793946PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918793946Political Research QuarterlyMullinix and Norris
research-article2018
1The University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, USA
2George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kevin J. Mullinix, The University of Kansas, 1541 Lilac Lane, Lawrence,
KS 66045, USA.
Email: kmullinix@ku.edu
Pulled-Over Rates, Causal Attributions,
and Trust in Police
Kevin J. Mullinix1 and Robert J. Norris2
Abstract
A growing literature documents racial disparities throughout the American criminal justice system. Yet, even as this
evidence accumulates and garners increasing media attention, we know relatively little about the consequences of this
type of information for public opinion. We incorporate insights from attribution theory to suggest that people differ
in the cause they attribute to racial disparities in the justice system, and these different causal attributions profoundly
affect attitudes and responses to information. Using two survey experiments, we find that attributions for the cause of
racial disparities in pulled-over rates have a substantial impact on trust in police, and perhaps more importantly, alter
susceptibility to persuasion and attitude change. Learning about racial disparities in pulled-over rates reduces trust in
police, but only for predictable subsets of the citizenry.
Keywords
trust in police, attributions, racial disparities, traffic stops, motivated reasoning

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