Assessing Police Officers Decision to Search a Vehicle: Analysis of Data From the Rhode Island Traffic Stops Statistics Act

Shea W. Cronin, Northeastern University
Amy Farrell, Northeastern University
Jack McDevitt, Northeastern University

ABSTRACT
Past research on police behavior has illuminated a number of factors that influence police officer decisions to stop, search and arrest individuals. These studies examined the relationship between attitudinal, organizational and situational variables in regards to a variety of officer actions. Past studies have primarily used observation data from several local police departments to assess issues of officer discretion. While observation data provides a great deal of richness to the analysis, the low number of departments and/or officers observed limits strength generalizations. The present study uses two years of traffic stop data collected from over forty locan and state law enforcement jurisdictions to determine the factors associated with officers' decision to search a vehicle. Responding offers self report information about the reason for traffic stop, result of stop, and post stop activities such as searches. Characteristics of the stopped vehicle (driver race, gender, age), situations (time of day, location, basis for stop) and organizational characteristics are exmined using logistical regression techniques. The legal threshold of the search (i.e. probably cause) and the outcome of the search (i.e. finding contraband) are also considered to help inform the officer decision-making process. The study concludes by examining some of the similarities and differences between the present study's findings and past research on officer behavior.

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Updated 05/20/2006