Racial Bias in Police Officers’ Discretionary Search Decisions and Associated Community Mental Health Consequences: Evidence from Nashville, Tennessee
Vielehr, Peter Schuyler
This dissertation examines racial disparities and racial bias in discretionary vehicle searches by police officers and how proactive police practices affect community mental health in Nashville, Tennessee. The first two papers examine discretionary vehicle search decisions by new officers over the first three years on the force. The first paper estimates racial disparities in discretionary search rate as career trajectories. The data show that increased suspicion is applied to black drivers, likely due to statistical discrimination. Additionally, officers conduct more searches—especially on black drivers—in the year prior to being eligible for a promotion. The second paper tests whether patrol officers’ decisions to conduct discretionary searches are influenced by racial or ethnic bias. I estimate a longitudinal hit rate test as well as a threshold test to determine whether discretionary searches are conducted with lower standards of evidence for black and Hispanic drivers than for whites. The results indicate that discretionary search decisions are biased against blacks and Hispanics. Finally, the third paper shifts to the potential impact of proactive policing and experiences of unfair treatment by police (UTBP) on mental health. I find that living in highly policed neighborhoods and having experienced UTBP is associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms. The results have implications both for scholarship on race and policing as well as for policy makers and police organizations.