Research / BFI Working PaperSep 11, 2023

A Cognitive View of Policing

Oeindrila Dube, Sandy Jo MacArthur, Anuj K. Shah

What causes adverse policing outcomes, such as excessive uses of force and unnecessary arrests? Prevailing explanations focus on problematic officers or deficient regulations and oversight. Here, we introduce a new, overlooked perspective. We suggest that the cognitive demands inherent in policing can undermine officer decision-making. Unless officers are prepared for these demands, they may jump to conclusions too quickly without fully considering alternative ways of seeing a situation. This can lead to adverse policing outcomes. To test this perspective, we created a new training that teaches officers to more deliberately consider different ways of interpreting the situations they encounter. We evaluated this training using a randomized controlled trial with 2,070 officers from the Chicago Police Department. In a series of lab assessments, we find that treated officers were significantly more likely to consider a wider range of evidence and develop more explanations for subjects’ actions. Critically, we also find that training affected officer performance in the field, leading to reductions in uses of force, discretionary arrests, and arrests of Black civilians. Meanwhile, officer activity levels remained unchanged, and trained officers were less likely to be injured on duty. Our results highlight the value of considering the cognitive aspects of policing and demonstrate the power of using behaviorally informed approaches to improve officer decision-making and policing outcomes.

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