High-speed Mobile Networks and Police Repression during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Case of Nigeria

Purpose: Government repression against civilians while enforcing restrictive policies related to COVID-19 was widely reported in Africa. At the same time, many have claimed that high-speed mobile data and social media provide an accountability mechanism that may constrain police abuses. This study focused on Nigeria to examine (1) the effect of COVID-19 lockdowns on police repression and (2) whether widespread high-speed mobile data networks constrain or facilitate police repression.
Design/Methodology: Using data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED) and the Mobile Coverage Database, and focusing on regional sub-units in Nigeria, this study used Difference-in-Differences (DID) and triple difference (DDD) estimation on a sample of 423,925 observations (local government area-days) between January 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020 to estimate the causal effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and high-speed mobile data on police repression.
Findings: Difference-in-Differences (DID) analyses reveal no increases in police repression during lockdown periods. However, triple difference (DDD) estimation finds that certain forms of police repression were greater during lockdown periods in areas with substantial high-speed (4G) mobile networks (a proxy indicator of rapid information dissemination and video sharing). Net 4G effects, separate from the lockdowns, were also observed. Police repression increased in areas with a widespread 4G network, even without lockdowns.
Research Implications: Contrary to theoretical hypotheses derived from self-awareness theory, as well as anecdotal claims of a “viral video effect” or “Ferguson Effect” constraining police behavior, proliferation of high-speed mobile networks in Nigeria appears to facilitate, rather than constrain, police repression. Additional studies may explore through what causal mechanisms high-speed mobile network proliferation affects police repression. For instance, it is possible that high-speed mobile data and social media allow police to detect and repress citizen behaviors they disapprove of, rather than permitting citizens to correct police behaviors they disapprove of.
Originality/Value: Although many studies have explored the COVID-19 pandemic and police behavior in Western countries, only a few have examined its effects in states with even more troubled policing institutions, including those in sub-Saharan Africa. The findings of increased government repression during lockdowns in areas with 4G proliferation, as well as the independent effects of 4G facilitating police repression even without lockdowns, present significant counterevidence to observations from the U.S. and elsewhere, which has suggested that the ability to rapidly and widely share videos of police misconduct via mobile devices can limit police repression. Such effects were not found in Nigeria.

Published in Policing: An International Journal

Is it possible to find a balance between reducing unnecessary traffic stops and ensuring public safety through traffic enforcement?

American roads have become deadlier than before the pandemic, and many are attributing this to a decrease in policing after the George Floyd protests of 2020. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the fatality rate, which is deaths per million miles traveled, is about 18% higher than in 2019. In contrast, other Western countries did not experience the same sustained increase in traffic deaths.

Jonathan Adkins, CEO of the GHSA, believes that the decrease in policing led to many people driving dangerously because they thought they could get away with it. He notes that there is not enough enforcement on the roads, and many police officers are hesitant to write tickets.

Seattle police officer Carol Cummings, who requested traffic stops data from the city, found that traffic citations by police were down about 86% compared to 2019. The Seattle Police Chief, Adrian Diaz, explains that this is due to staffing levels and call loads. His department lost hundreds of officers after the George Floyd protests of 2020, and he had to cut dedicated traffic details.

Susan Nembhard, a research associate with the Urban Institute, believes that traffic stops can be dangerous interactions, particularly for people of color and specifically Black people. She has argued for limiting those stops. As a result, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and even the state of Virginia have adopted formal policies limiting traffic stops for minor violations. Seattle has also instructed officers not to pull cars over for certain non-moving violations, such as expired license tags and obstructions hanging from the rear-view mirror.

While these new policies reduce the number of contacts between police and citizens, some believe that they have also reduced drivers’ impression that they’ll be stopped for more serious violations, such as running red lights. However, Adkins says that the Governors Highway Safety Association believes in equitable enforcement and could accept restrictions on stops for technical violations, as long as drivers are still stopped when they’re doing something dangerous. Cummings believes that many drivers follow the law because they know it makes sense, but some people drive dangerously, and without enough enforcement on the roads, they are the ones putting themselves and others at risk.

Is it possible to find a balance between reducing unnecessary traffic stops and ensuring public safety through traffic enforcement? The decrease in traffic stops for minor violations may have unintended consequences, such as drivers feeling that they can get away with more serious violations, and ultimately making the roads more dangerous. On the other hand, limiting these stops could also help reduce the number of dangerous interactions between police and citizens, particularly for people of color. Striking a balance between equitable enforcement and public safety is crucial to improving road safety in the United States.

Is more money the solution to the police staffing crisis?

Police departments across the United States are experiencing chronic understaffing as a result of retirements, resignations, and a reduction in hires. According to a recent PERF survey of 182 law enforcement agencies, police departments have seen 47% more resignations and 19% more retirements in 2022 than they did in 2019, despite recruiting more officers than in 2020. The resulting shortage may result in departments hiring fewer and less qualified candidates, leaving fewer officers available to respond to emergencies. External scrutiny and reputational harm to the profession have reduced the number of people willing to become police officers. Still, some experts suggest that the reduced applicant pool could have a net positive effect by restricting it to candidates who are willing to address the challenges of modern policing.

Cleveland police

However, the shortage of officers has led to bidding wars between departments, with wealthier departments often winning out. Some police departments have changed their internal policies, while others have eliminated services, units, or positions due to the inability to staff their departments adequately. The cost of hiring qualified candidates creates a significant problem for departments with limited budgets. This situation has led to police forces becoming “second-chance departments” as they try to hire more attainable officers seeking a second chance after leaving or being fired by other departments.

Some people have suggested that solving the police staffing crisis, especially in urban areas, requires more spending. They say that increases in salaries and benefits of their officers will make the profession more attractive to qualified candidates. This could include signing bonuses, healthcare benefits, and retirement plans. They also promote Investing in education and training to ensure that they are equipped with the necessary skills to address modern policing challenges effectively. This could include training in de-escalation techniques, implicit bias, and mental health response.

But will more money make policing better? On a per-capita basis, the United States spends more money on law enforcement and criminal justice than similar Western nations. According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States spends significantly more on law enforcement and criminal justice than other high-income countries. In 2019, the United States spent $1,345 per capita on law enforcement and criminal justice, compared to an average of $374 among OECD countries. This spending includes not only police departments but also corrections, courts, and other criminal justice services. Vastly outspending our peers, you would expect that we would have the most professional police officers and the lowest crime rates. And yet…

Demonstrations, Demoralization, and De-policing

Research Summary
This study examined relationships between public antipathy toward the police, demoralization, and de-policing using pooled time-series cross sections of 18,413 surveys from law enforcement officers in 87 U.S. agencies both before and after Ferguson and contemporaneous demonstrations. The results do not provide strong support for Ferguson Effects. Post-Ferguson changes to job satisfaction, burnout, and cynicism (reciprocated distrust) were negligible. Although Post-Ferguson officers issued fewer citations and conducted less foot patrol, effect sizes were minimal in magnitude. Cynicism, which was widespread both before and after Ferguson, was associated with reduced officer activity.

Policy Implications
Post-Ferguson protests in 2014 did not appreciably worsen police morale nor lead to substantial withdrawal from most police work, suggesting that the police institution is resilient to exogenous shocks. Low job satisfaction, however, was associated with fewer citations, and cynicism was negatively associated with both citations issued and community meeting attendance, indicating that agencies may need to address officer attitudes—irrespective of legitimacy crises—to promote proactive policing and community engagement.

Published in Criminology & Public Policy

Feeling Blue: Officer Perceptions of Public Antipathy Predict Police Occupational Norms

Recent protests against law enforcement have spurred claims by practitioners and editorialists that public antipathy toward the police may influence police occupational norms. A number of classic police ethnographies also suggest a link between perceived public antipathy and police culture, but limited empirical research has examined this claim. Using a sample of 12,376 sworn law enforcement officers who participated in the National Police Research Platform, and a series of ordinary least squares regressions, this study examines whether officers’ perceptions of public support predict their cultural orientations. Results reveal that officers perceiving greater public antipathy report higher levels of social isolation, work-group solidarity, cynicism toward the public, and coercive attitudes. We identify practical implications and potential organizational remedies to address these perceptions, and situate these findings within theoretical arguments of early police ethnographers and contemporary claims of the “Ferguson Effect.”

Published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.