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ASU analysis of policing during tumultuous times shows dramatic but short-term effects

Crime plummeted during pandemic, police killing aftermath, while use of force ticked up

Blue lights flashing on the top of a police car.
April 21, 2022

A new Arizona State University analysis shows that the unprecedented events of the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020 had immediate and dramatic effects on the work of the Tempe Police Department, but most of the effects were short-term.

Michael White, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU, along with PhD students Carlena Orosco and Brice Terpstra, studied Tempe officers’ responses during three time periods: before the pandemic, during the pandemic but before the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, and the period after the killing. Their paper, “Investigating the Impacts of a Global Pandemic and George Floyd’s Death on Crime and Other Features of Police Work,” was published recently in Justice Quarterly.

Overall, the analysis showed that crime plummeted for a few months, along with officer-initiated actions, while use of force increased, although it was still rare.

White has worked with the Tempe Police Department for a few years on different projects, and has access to data.

“One of my doctoral students is a crime analyst at Tempe PD, and she and I were talking about 2020 and the two unprecedented events for policing nationally: the global pandemic and the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which led to worldwide protest and outrage,” said White, who is associate director of ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

“There had been a lot of discussion nationally about the impact those events had on police work, both crime and other aspects of police work, like officer productivity and calls for service.”

The team examined the responses of the Tempe Police Department at two levels.

“We collected a ton of administrative data at the department, going back to 2017 through the first month of 2021 – things like reported crime overall, type, citizen calls for service, officer arrests, use of force, traffic accidents,” White said.

“We used some sophisticated analytic techniques to determine how those different measures changed with both events.”

The second analysis was of individual encounters between Tempe citizens and Tempe police officers. They examined hundreds of hours of body-worn camera footage from incidents during the three time periods.

“We were looking to see how things changed at the individual encounter level between community members and officers,” said White, who is co-director of training and technical assistance for the U.S. Department of Justice Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program.

“Were officers doing and saying the same things? Were citizens behaving the same and doing the same things?”

The team chose the week of March 10, 2020, when President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency, as the start of the pandemic.

“We saw an immediate and dramatic decline in almost everything looking after that week,” White said.

“Calls for service dropped by 20%. Crime dropped by 20%. Reported crime dropped immediately and significantly. Arrests and traffic accidents dropped dramatically.”

At the end of May 2020, after George Floyd’s death, crime and arrests dropped again.

“What really dropped, by 40%, was officer-initiated actions,” White said. “These two events had a dramatic impact on everything the police were doing at the department level.”

The analysis of the body-worn camera footage showed a different view.

“We looked at how officers were treating citizens. Were they treating them with respect and using de-escalation tactics?” White said.

The team examined several procedural justice variables in each encounter, such as: Did the officer speak respectfully? Was the officer clear in their commands? Did the officer yell unnecessarily? The footage of each encounter was coded separately by two people.

“While things at the department level changed dramatically, at the encounter level, they didn’t change much at all. Officers continued to use high levels of procedural justice regardless of these two unprecedented events,” he said.

One of the areas that saw a difference was use of force by officers. At the department level, the team looked at use of force each week from 2017 through 2021.

“While lots of things dropped dramatically after the pandemic and George Floyd’s death, the use of force by Tempe Police Department actually increased throughout 2020,” White said.

“We had lots of questions about why that might be.”

The researchers chose the body-worn camera footage randomly and saw no use of force in those encounters, even though department data showed it increased.

Overall, use of force is still a rare event in the Tempe Police Department, White said.

“It essentially increased from happening in less than 1% of interactions to happening in less than 2% of interactions. That means in 98% of interactions, there was no use of force,” he said. “We know that there’s national-level data on the frequency of use of force, and it’s right around 3%.”

Still, the increase was puzzling given the decrease in crime and calls for service. White gave a few possible explanations.

“One is that we know after the onset of the global pandemic, TPD instituted policies that were designed to reduce the risk of infection, so they moved less serious calls for service to online and telephone reporting, which means that when police officers responded to calls in person, they were much more likely to involve serious crimes or serious offenses, which may have concentrated the intensity of those calls,” he said.

In addition, violence increased nationally in 2020.

“One thing we didn’t capture in the study was the level of aggression and resistance directed toward Tempe police officers,” he said.

“The increase in the use of force could probably have been a reaction to the increased levels of aggression by the public.”

White said the analysis can give police departments insight into what they might expect if there’s another COVID-19 outbreak.

“Departments would be better prepared to not only respond to that, but also understand what it will mean in terms of workload, as well as how long the impact will be,” he said.

Top image courtesy of Pixabay

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