What Works for Me? Arrest Decisions as Adaptive Behavior

Edith Linn, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Studies of arrest discretion have highlighted arrest's distinctive sociological, psychological, and organizational dimensions, while ignoring the mundane effects of arrest-processing itself. Yet it is this process of arrest-making, and its impact on the personal lives of officers, that may be the most critical arrest determinant of all.

Consider the 40,000-uniform member New York City Police Department, where the applicant, a police lieutenant, observed fellow officers for twenty years. In the NYPD, post-arrest procedures often involve prolonged paperwork and contact with prisoners, and officers must extend their tour in proportion to the lateness of their arrests. This situation generates powerful private motives to make or avoid arrest at any given time.

The most common benefit afforded by arrest is overtime, calculated at time-and-a-half rates, taken in cash or compensatory time. Arrest also offers an escape to the station house from an unpleasant assignment. The major personal costs of arrest processing are also two-fold. It is an intrusion upon officer's lives as private individuals, and it poses inherent risks and discomforts. Controlling the timing and type of arrests is thus a way officers can control their income, personal schedule, and working conditions.

New York City patrol officers seem to absorb the skills and rationales of arrest-control from their first station house roll call. There, many officers speak freely of their need for arrest overtime to pay for a car, a vacation, or their children's braces. Some officers mention how they were up all night with a heavy date or a sick baby and are thus in no condition to stay late with an arrest. Others talk about a class, a second job, or a party after work that would preclude their making an arrest. One officer, itching from contact with a lice-infested prisoner, declares that he will never again arrest a derelict. Those in car-pools coordinate their arrest plans to accommodate their transportation needs going home. Officers poll one another as to who that day would offer or take an unwanted arrest.

When these arrest-sharing arrangements fall neatly into place, they have little impact on the arrest decisions. But sometimes officers who have arranged to pass off their arrest find the "catchers" tied up with other patrol incidents. Occasionally, those officers most willing to take arrests are "capped out," discouraged by management from making any more cash overtime. On Super Bowl Sunday or on holidays, officers may not find a single volunteer to take their arrest. At other periods, like the pre-Christmas shopping season, nearly every officer is out scrambling for arrest overtime. Thus peer cooperation cannot guarantee that on a given day an officer will be able to make or avoid an arrest.

Some officers therefore feel a need to modify their patrol style to enhance their "arrest control." On a no-arrest day they may keep themselves busy with summonses and service calls, drive slowly and noisily to crimes in progress, avoid blocks where arrests "fall into your lap," and forego proactive measures like license plate checks and stop-and-frisks. They may avoid the types of people and the kinds of arguments that get them "pissed off." They may construe incidents as non-crimes, or ignore them entirely. And on an arrest day, they may do exactly the opposite - rush to incidents, initiate interventions, provoke disputants, and pat down "known criminals" - particularly late in the tour, when arrests mean overtime.

Oft-repeated maxims endorse officer self-interest as a rationale for adaptive arrest behavior. "Your job is to get home safe at the end of eight hours" and "Your family comes first" remind fellow officers not to be too self-sacrificing. "Make the Job work for you" celebrates the officer's ability to control the timing and type of arrest, so as to garner perks usually reserved for non-patrol assignments - more money, timely sign-out, or less unpleasantness. Other expressions justify adaptive arrest behavior by alluding to the "revolving door" nature of arrests. Capturing the broad disillusionment with the entire "System" is the common refrain, "The Job's not on the level."

Supervisors struggle to keep officers content and arrests honest. They may occasionally indulge subordinates who ask for an arrest-prone or arrest-proof assignment, and may give a disproportion of non-arrest posts to women officers with young children. They may ask officers "looking for a collar" to identify themselves for the benefit of those hoping not to get stuck. They may help negotiate arrest-processing responsibilities, or assign an end-of-tour arrest to an officer on straight time. But even the most diligent sergeants are unable to oversee every potential arrest scene, and would incur great resentment if they tried. Moreover, sergeants sometimes feel they must barter for the cooperation of subordinates, even if it means "hanging back" from problematic arrest situations or accepting questionable arrest decisions.

Commanding officers are less familiar with their officers' motives. They must focus on the "heavy hitters" who run up department overtime, and to a lesser extent, on the "empty suits" who "get paid for doing nothing." So, perversely, the most opportunistic officers may escape notice by balancing arrests and avoidance, while the most conscientious crime-fighters may be penalized by being denied scheduled overtime tours, or being reassigned to posts with few arrest opportunities.

These observations are at odds with the prevailing paradigm of arrest discretion, wherein officers randomly respond to situations, discover an offense, and then weigh a host of factors that broadly may be termed incident-related. Here, personal concerns predisposed officers to make or avoid arrest, affecting which situations they handled and how they handled them. Adaptive arrest behaviors appeared to be most affected by officers' finances, post-work commitments, and arrest-related aversions. These adaptations developed early, as officers ended formal training, gained patrol experience, and absorbed coworkers' arrest-control techniques and motives. The behaviors were encouraged by verbal endorsements of self-interest and cynical arrest attitudes. They seemed to vary with gender, tour, and the particulars of arrest processing. Finally, these activities were little restricted by management. The proposed research will empirically examine the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of these preliminary observations.

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Updated 05/20/2006