To Serve and Collect: The Fiscal and Racial Determinants of Law Enforcement

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We exploit local deficits and state-level differences in police revenue retention from civil asset forfeitures to estimate how incentives to raise revenue influence policing. In a national sample, we find that local fine and forfeiture revenue increases faster with drug arrests than arrests for violent crimes. Revenues also increase faster with arrests of blacks and Hispanics than with whites’ drug arrests. Concomitant with higher rates of revenue generation, we find that arrests of blacks and Hispanics for drugs, driving under the influence, and prostitution, and associated property seizures, increase with local deficits when institutions allow officials to more easily retain revenues from forfeited property. Whites’ drug and driving under the influence arrests are insensitive to these institutions. We do, however, observe comparable increases in whites’ prostitution arrests. Our results show that revenue-driven law enforcement can distort police behavior and decision-making, altering the quantity, type, and racial composition of arrests.

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