Zip Code of Conduct: Crime Rate Affects Legal Punishment of Police

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How does crime influence punishment? Past work has heavily focused on whether punishment deters crime; we explored the inverse of this frequently studied relationship to test the processes by which crime influences legal punishment. Specifically, we asked whether the crime rate of the area in which individuals reside predicts the degree to which a police defendant is punished for use of force against a civilian. We found that crime rate, as derived by national statistics, relates to individuals’ contact and social identification with police (Studies 1 and 2), thus impacting punishment of officers (Study 2). Participants from higher crime areas punished police defendants more and civilian defendants less than those from lower crime areas. The relationship between crime and legal punishment of officers was explained by more frequent negative contact with officers and subsequent reduced social identification with police. This work integrates regional factors with characteristics of the individual, broadening the theoretical scope of work examining bias among legal decision-makers.

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