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Is Police Behavior Getting Worse? Data Selection and the Measurement of Policing Harms

Aurélie Ouss and John Rappaport

The Journal of Legal Studies, 2020, vol. 49, issue 1, 153 - 198

Abstract: Public concern about harmful policing is surging. Governments are paying historic amounts for law enforcement liability. Has police behavior changed? Or is society responding differently? Traditional data sources struggle with this question. Common metrics conflate the prevalence and severity of policing harms with the responses of legal actors such as lawyers, judges, and juries. We overcome this problem using a new data source: liability insurance claims. Our data set contains 23 years of claims against roughly 350 law enforcement agencies that contract with a single insurer. We find that, while lawsuits and payouts have trended upward over the past decade, insurance claims have declined. We examine multiple potential explanations. We argue that, in our sample, police behavior is not getting worse; rather, societal responses to policing harms are intensifying. Police litigation is not representative of the broader universe of claims, and adjudicated claims differ systematically from settled ones.

Date: 2020
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