Hunting for “Dirtbags”: Why Cops Over-police the Poor and Racial Minorities


Lori Beth Way and Ryan Patten ’03 PhD

Northeastern University Press, 2013


In this day of increased scrutiny of police, many people wonder about policing styles and how officers use their unassigned time. The high rate of minority arrests and stops as well as the higher level of surveillance in poor communities have also come into question.

With these things in mind, two political science colleagues at California State University, Chico explored what factors influence police officers’ decisions on their policing strategies. Patten and Way conducted their research in two large cities, one in California and one on the East Coast. They performed direct interviews with officers as well as about 300 observational ride-alongs.

They describe three types of police officers: hunters, slugs, and community builders. The hunters actively looked for lawbreakers and focused on serious non-violent crimes like drugs and car theft, but were less likely to respond to citizen calls for misdemeanors or other police support. Slugs were slow or less likely to respond to calls and had fewer citations, arrests, and resident contacts. Community builders were the types of officers who might stop a car to inform the driver that a headlight was out and who sought to provide positive interactions with the community.

Patten and Way noted that many policing strategies, like hunting, were not effective. The researchers also concluded that officers had the discretion to take proactive action like conducting a higher level of surveillance on poor communities, which in turn would lead to more arrests in minority neighborhoods.

The current policing system isn’t working, argue the authors. While crime decreased in the past decade, incarceration and supervision had not. At the same time proactive policing, like looking for lawbreakers in poor neighborhoods, did not result in more convictions. Instead, the frequency and targeted nature of the proactive policing suggested harassment.

In their conclusion, Patten and Way suggest a service-oriented policing model where officers would respond more to citizen calls for service, they would follow up with the victim or complainant, and they and their supervisors would use crime analysis data to make decisions about how and where to patrol.