10 August 2023

Under Pressure? Performance Evaluation of Police Officers as an Incentive to Cheat

For decades, researchers have been investigating the relationship between incentives and effort. They found that while motivation is essential, strong incentives based on easy-to-measure goals can sometimes lead to unintended negative effects.

A recent paper by Ekaterina Travova studies the impact of strong performance-based incentives on the behavior of police officers in Russia, and investigates further consequences of these incentives for the offenders.

Figure 1 shows the distribution of heroin cases across drug quantities seized in Russia, revealing a striking pattern with a missing mass of cases just below a punishment threshold and a bunching of cases just above it. This suggests that police may manipulate drug quantities seized to push offenders into more severe charges because of existing performance evaluation requirements.

Figure 1: Distribution of cases across quantities of heroin seized in Russia during 2013-2014

To understand the impact of performance-based incentives better, Ekaterina compares two drug control agencies in Russia, which were similar in many aspects but had different performance evaluation approaches. One agency evaluated its officers based on the change in their performance over time, while the other compared performance of officers across stations within the same time period. Ekaterina shows that performance evaluation does indeed influence police behavior: when the station meets its previous year's performance level, there a 4% increase in severe drug crime registrations during that month. One of the potential mechanisms behind this pattern might be the manipulation of the drug amounts seized by the police. Focusing on heroin-related offenses, Ekaterina finds further evidence suggesting that the manipulation resulting in the observed bunching of cases is consistent with it being driven by the police performance evaluation system.

In the paper, Ekaterina also explores further negative consequences of the strong performance-based incentive. She identifies a gender bias in police officers' decisions to manipulate, with men more likely to be victimized. Furthermore, she finds that manipulation leads to longer sentences for drug users, with about one extra year of imprisonment compared to cases without manipulation. Additionally, there is also a higher chance of pretrial detention if the drug amount seized was manipulated.
This research highlights the potential negative consequences of high-powered performance-based incentives in law enforcement, shedding light on the need for thoughtful policy-making to address these issues.

You can read the full research paper here