When “Tough” Cops Divert and “Soft” Cops Charge: Trait Attitudes vs. State Situational Narratives in a Focal Concerns Process of Police Decision-Making

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Research Question Do police officers’ overall “tough” or “soft” attitudes toward crime and defendants determine how they handle discretionary cases, or does each officer look at the elements in each case to see whether they should act “tough” or “soft” in the given situation? This study tests whether police decisions to divert cases from prosecution into diversionary out-of-court disposals are driven by “trait attitudes”—each officer’s overall “tough” or “soft” attitudes toward defendants, which are stable characteristics of each officer regardless of the situation—versus officers’ “state attitudes”—their narratives about the meaning of specific elements present in each case as they make decisions.

Methods Thirty-four officers in a large urban force completed attitudinal surveys and 20 case study vignettes. For each vignette, officers recorded: each relevant element (e.g. criminal history, alcohol involvement); whether each element pushed them toward prosecution or diversion, and why; and whether they would prosecute or divert the case. Officers recorded 2,241 elements across 645 case responses. Using primarily hierarchical logistic regression models, this study tests the impact of trait attitudes versus state narratives on recommended case outcomes.

Results Officer decision-making was more influenced by officers’ interpretations of whether elements signaled each defendant was “reformable” or “incorrigible” than by their overall “tough” or “soft” attitudes. Officers often disagreed on how they interpreted the same elements in the same cases, leading to different outcomes. State narratives were strong predictors in most models regardless of officers’ overall attitudes, including predicting diversion. Trait attitudes had little or no impact in most models, except for one subset of officers—officers in the “toughest” quartile of attitudes were more likely to perceive defendants as incorrigible and less likely to divert.

Implications This study provides evidence against the theory that officers are primarily driven by their overall attitudes toward defendants, and instead suggests their narratives interpreting case elements are important drivers of differences between officers in decision-making—officers try to pick the "correct" outcome in each case using these narratives. Therefore, research and police departments should explore officers’ interpretation of situational elements, and test mechanisms to provide feedback regarding accuracy of assumptions.