The behavior of police: class, race, and discretion in drug enforcement

Walter Campbell, Elizabeth Griffiths, Joshua Hinkle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Police officers act under highly variable constraints. Some drug arrests occur on routine patrols in which officers’ exercise discretion, others are a product of departmental priorities, and the remainder occur after police are called to the scene. In his treatise on the Behavior of Law, Donald Black asserted that law behaves directionally according to rank, status, and social integration. Using multilevel data on felony drug arrests in one metropolitan Southern U.S. county, we examine the extent to which police behavior shows the discretionary application of law to be disproportionately levied against offenders in disadvantaged neighborhoods or against black individuals. The findings suggest that Black’s theory is well-equipped to explain police discretion in drug enforcement patterns, with disadvantage and race predicting discretion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)337-354
Number of pages18
JournalPolice Practice and Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2022
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Law


  • Black’s theory of law
  • Drug enforcement
  • bias
  • discretion
  • disparities
  • policing


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