Fiscal Pressures and Discriminatory Policing: Evidence from Traffic Stops in Missouri


Allison P. Harris, Elliott Ash, and Jeffrey Fagan

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Harris, A., Ash, E., & Fagan, J. (2020). Fiscal Pressures and Discriminatory Policing: Evidence from Traffic Stops in Missouri. The Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, 5(3), 450-480. DOI:10.1017/rep.2020.10.
This paper provides evidence of racial variation in traffic enforcement responses to local government budget stress using data from policing agencies in the state of Missouri from 2001 through 2012. Like previous studies, we find that local budget stress is associated with higher citation rates; we also find an increase in traffic-stop arrest rates. However, we find that these effects are concentrated among White (rather than Black or Latino) drivers. The results are robust to the inclusion of a range of covariates and a variety of model specifications, including a regression discontinuity examining bare budget shortfalls. Considering potential mechanisms, we find that targeting of White drivers is higher where the White-to-Black income ratio is higher, consistent with the targeting of drivers who are better able to pay fines. Further, the relative effect on White drivers is higher in areas with statistical over-policing of Black drivers: when Black drivers are already getting too many fines, police cite White drivers from whom they are presumably more likely to be able to raise the needed extra revenue. These results highlight the relationship between policing-as-taxation and racial inequality in policing outcomes.
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