Do Female Officers Police Differently? Evidence from Traffic Stops

The forthcoming article “Do Female Officers Police Differently? Evidence from Traffic Stops” by Kelsey Shoub, Katelyn E. Stauffer, and Miyeon Song is summarized by the author(s) below. 

With mounting evidence that police contact affects political and civic participation, political scientists have increasingly questioned what informs police-citizen interactions, ranging from citizen characteristics, to the context of the interaction, to officer race. Our research focuses on the possible role of officer sex in shaping these interactions, and asks whether women bring a unique perspective to the force and do their jobs differently than men. 

Existing research has offered conflicting answers to these questions. One perspective argues that gendered socialization means men and women have different experiences and perspectives that they bring with them to the force, and these differences will manifest in observable differences in officer behavior. Another perspective, in contrast, points to factors such as academy training and agency norms and practices to argue that men and women are socialized (and incentivized) to engage in similar behaviors on the force. 

Using information on millions of traffic stops conducted by the Florida Highway Patrol and Charlotte (North Carolina) Police Department across multiple years, we test these competing perspectives. We focus on traffic stops because they afford officers a high degree of discretion, meaning if men and women approach their jobs differently, we should be most likely to observe differences in this context. Traffic stops also provide a more “gender-neutral” context compared to past studies that have examined officer sex in highly gendered areas, such as sexual assault. Another aspect of traffic stops that lends itself to this analysis is that multiple steps occur during a stop, which we can leverage to test not only whether there are differences in behavior (i.e., whether men and women officers search drivers at different rates) but also whether men and women have different levels of success in bringing contraband off the streets.  

We find that women officers are less likely to search a driver following a stop than officers who are men, indicating that women are less likely to escalate the encounter. While these differences in search rates may help to minimize negative interactions between women officers and civilians, it does raise the question of whether fewer stops come at the cost of effectiveness. Our findings, however, show that the decrease in searches conducted by women officers only negligibly affects how much contraband they find compared with officers who are men and that women officers find contraband at a comparatively higher rate.  

Together, these results indicate that women officers may reduce the frequency and intensity of negative police-citizen interactions at no cost to job performance and effectiveness. One implication of our findings is that diversifying police forces may produce more positive – or at least less negative – police-citizens interactions. Given the corrosive effects of negative police-citizen encounters on views of the government generally and the police specifically, understanding the dynamics underpinning these interactions is critical.  While our research does not address systemic forces that shape how police engage with citizens, it does shed light onto how individual officer characteristics and behaviors condition the nature of these interactions.  

About the Author(s): Kelsey Shoub is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of South Carolina, Katelyn E. Stauffer is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of South Carolina and Miyeon Song is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at University of South Carolina. Their research “Do Female Officers Police Differently? Evidence from Traffic Stops” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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