Underlying Influences of Police Use of Excessive Force
July 17, 2015
This is the third of a series of articles on how policing practices in the U.S. are related to the rate at which black men are subject to excessive force, including lethal force. This article focuses on the role of selection and training on policing. On this site, see: Let’s Profile Police Who Kill and Why Police Shoot Unarmed Blacks
Police Use of Excessive Force Is Systemic
No official database of police use of excessive force exists. The FBI maintains a voluntary database of police shootings, but it omits as many as half of the police shootings. A thorough analysis of this important question hasn’t been done because the data are so incomplete. Nonetheless, the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers are attempting to build national databases of police use of lethal force through media reports. The analyses they have conducted so far indicate that the police use of lethal force is twice as likely to target blacks.
Each case in which the police have used lethal force against blacks over the last year represents a unique situation, according to some observers, including many police union spokesmen. But a cursory examination of these cases, as chronicled by the media indicate the following. First, the suspects were, overwhelmingly, black and unarmed. Second, the suspect’s initial offense was relatively minor and nonviolent. And third, police actions escalated the intensity of the situation, and they later used the suspects’ provoked response to justify police use of force, claiming the officer appeared to have no other choice.
Description of how implicit or unconscious bias can affect behavior
The analyses they have conducted so far indicate that the police use of lethal force is twice as likely to target blacks.
External Factors or Individual Deficiencies in Use of Excessive Force
Experts have found that police officers may use excessive force due to factors outside of the officer’s control. That is, officers may develop expectations based on unclear policies or policies gone awry and “legitimately” use excessive force. Even when the use of excessive force is due to the officer’s inadequate performance or deficiencies, police departments must bear some responsibility for the training provided to its officers. Police departments are expected to provide clear standards of conduct and to remedy inadequate skills and knowledge.
Policies Gone Awry
Broken Windows Policing
“Broken windows” policing is philosophy of policing that calls for enforcing laws against minor offenses as small as breaking windows, often in minority communities. It is a way of discouraging disrespect for laws against major offenses and showing the community they’re actively enforcing laws. Often the use of excessive force follows an initial encounter between police and minorities for a small offense because the department sanctions “broken windows policing.” “Stop and frisk” or zero-tolerance is a variation of broken windows policing in which individuals who police officers believe to be “suspicious” are stopped and searched, as a way of discouraging potential offenders from carrying drugs or weapons. The phrase “driving while black” characterizes the idea of what constitutes “suspicion”. While serious questions have been raised about whether “broken windows” policing reduces serious crimes, one consequence is clear. As the number of encounters between police and minorities increases, the likelihood of a spiral toward excessive force increases.
In addition, as the number of serious crimes declines, police commanders continue to insist on increasing arrest numbers to show police effectiveness, especially in minority neighborhoods. Increasingly, low level offenses are enforced to maintain the number of arrests. A study by the Daily News found that minor offenses like spitting, disorderly conduct, loitering, open container, and failure to have a dog license were more likely to be enforced in black and Hispanic parts of New York city.
As the number of serious crimes declines, police commanders continue to insist on increasing arrest numbers to show police effectiveness, especially in minority neighborhoods.
Militarization of Police Departments
Another factor outside of the control of officers that some observers associate with the use of excessive force is police militarization. Police militarization refers to departments taking on military characteristics by forming heavily armed units or Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and using military equipment, such as bazookas, explosive devices, armed personnel carriers, and heavy machine guns. Spurred, in part, by the war on drugs, the initial use of military equipment and tactics was intended to combat heavily armed or barricaded drug suspects, snipers, and rioters. Soon, however, the existence of SWAT teams armed with military equipment and trained in military tactics became clear and convincing evidence of police effectiveness.
Once police departments established heavily armed SWAT teams, they increasingly used them for routine police work either because they were newly available, along with military techniques, or to help ensure the safety of officers. In addition, asset forfeiture laws permitted funds seized in drug raids to be used by police departments to purchase more military equipment. Thus, militarization led to even further militarization of police departments. An American Civil Liberties Union study found 79 percent of SWAT operations were for search warrant executions for drug investigations. When demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri attempted to protest an alleged incident of lethal force (the shooting of Michael Brown), they were met with SWAT teams and police snipers in armored vehicles. The very presence of militarized police force increased tensions and the hostility of the demonstrators.
SWAT raids have resulted in the injury and death of innocent bystanders as police have been granted more power to conduct no-knock raids. For example, an innocent homeowner, Jose Guerena, was killed when his wife awoke to find an armed man outside their bedroom window. Guerena, an Iraq war veteran, grabbed his rifle and went to investigate the intruder when the SWAT team breached his house and shot him 71 times.
The very presence of militarized police force increased tensions and the hostility of the demonstrators.
The effect of militarization is not limited to the direct infliction of injury of death. Several researchers have found that militarization has a toxic effect on the attitudes of police officers. As Arthur Rizer, a professor of law and former policeman notes, militarization “reinforces an ‘us against them’ mindset that results in the overreaction, brutality and bullying we’ve seen so much of recently.” Instead of police officers protecting the civil liberties of all citizens, including the suspects that they arrest as was the traditional role of police, militarized police try to identify the enemy and then quell any resistance as quickly as possible. Like any soldier, but unlike traditional police, lethal force is not the last resort; lethal force is the primary tool.
Despite the casualties and near casualties associated with militarized policing, the threat of terrorism has exacerbated it. The threat of terrorism has been used to justify police militarization and provide even deadlier weapons to police departments through a Department of Defense program that supplies excess military equipment. As police became a bulwark against potential terrorism, the militarization of police has spread throughout police departments and become duty of all police officers. Moreover, through part-time SWAT team members receiving military training and then returning to conventional police work; promotions of SWAT team members to police leadership; and the easy demonstrability of militarization as an indicator of police effectiveness, militarization has spread from SWAT teams throughout departments.
Community Policing: An Antidote for “Broken Windows” and Militarization
Some researchers and activists claim that the primary antidote for both the “broken windows” policing and the militarization of police is community policing. Community policing is an approach to policing that involves three components: community partnerships, problem-solving, and organizational transformation. Community partnerships involve working with citizens, community groups, media, and other government agencies to identify and solve community problems. Problem-solving involves addressing the conditions that lead to criminal activity and negatively affect the community’s quality of life. A community organizational strategy is less centralized and bureaucratic than traditional policing and is designed to focus on the police officer as a problem solver who may or may not decide that an arrest is necessary.
Because of differences in how community policing is defined and implemented, it is often not clear whether it has been implemented by a police department. Despite community policing’s embrace by progressive activists and others seeking an easily understandable remedy police militarization, it is not clear that community policing offers an effective solution to militarization. Community policing can be used as a cover for the kind of aggressive policing that characterizes “broken windows” policing and militarization. Nonetheless, community policing does stress that police officers should be trained as problem solvers and that lethal force is recognized as only one of the tools they have for keeping the peace.
Community policing does stress that police officers should be trained as problem solvers and that lethal force is recognized as only one of the tools they have for keeping the peace.
Individual Deficiencies: A Critical Factor in the Use of Lethal Force
Individual deficiencies in police recruits include characteristics such as immaturity, limited experiences, personal biases or lack of self-awareness, sensitivity, and good decision making skills Effective police training requires selecting recruits who are mature (25 years old) and have obtained at least two years of college. In addition, recruits who have diverse experiences are more likely to self-aware and sensitive, although additional training should be a part of a police recruit’s training.
Individuals have implicit biases or unconscious beliefs and attitudes based on automatic associations between groups and their propensity to commit crime. These implicit biases can adversely affect a police officer’s behavior, although they are neither intentional nor based on animus. Professor Lori Fridell describes how a police officer may perceive criminal activity when he observes two young minority males driving in a predominantly white neighborhood. Unconscious racial bias can also lead officers to perceive greater threat from blacks, and thus, respond to blacks with greater aggression because of bias.
These implicit biases can adversely affect a police officer’s behavior, although they are neither intentional nor based on animus.
In addition, while academic simulation studies have shown that whites are no more likely overall to shoot a black suspect than a white suspect, there are important differences in the kind of mistakes made. The whites who were tested were able to more quickly and accurately decide to shoot an armed black suspect than a white suspect. Conversely, the whites acting as policemen were more able to quickly and accurately decide not to shoot an unarmed white suspect than a black suspect. That is, black suspects were expected to be armed while white suspects were expected to be unarmed. The effects of implicit biases on the decision to shoot or not shoot are increased when split second decision making is required.
The pernicious effects of biases on behavior can be managed and reduced by training. Prof. Fridell has found that the association between minorities and the assumed propensity to commit crimes can be overridden with repeated exposure to counter examples. Further, researchers have found that white police officers who had greater positive contact with blacks were less likely to believe that black suspects were more dangerous than white suspects. Officers who had less positive contact with blacks thought black suspects were more dangerous than white suspects and more likely to shoot.
White police officers who had greater positive contact with blacks were less likely to believe that black suspects were more dangerous than white suspects.
Most police departments, especially smaller departments, don’t recruit or train in ways that could optimize police behavior, although complete national data are not available. For example, most departments still recruit 20 or 21 year olds, who only have a high school diploma, and can pass a physical test, despite the limited correlation of these characteristics to optimum policing. It seems that few departments include an applicant’s experience with diverse situations as a part of their background investigations. Few departments train their recruits in how to overcome their implicit biases, although some departments such as the Chicago help their recruits become aware of how their race, gender, and ethnic biases can affect their policing decisions.
In addition, police training concentrates on techniques of how force is used and stresses the physical risks that a police officer faces. But, in fact, policing is not one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in the U.S. According to Professor Seth Stoughton of the University of South Carolina Law School, officers are taught to expect the worse from every encounter with the public and to shoot first because any delay can be fatal. Officers are not generally taught de-escalation skills or what other tools may be used instead of pepper spray, baton, Taser, or gun. Police departments that teach de-escalation, however, have seen a significant decrease in the use of lethal force.
Following each of the questionable shootings of unarmed blacks, some media pundits and community activists call for more police training. However, if the current regimen of police training is inadequate for any reasons other than the amount of training, then simply calling for more training is likely to lead to more lethal force. As Professor Maria Haberfeld of the John Jay College points out, policing is about the use of force and discretion; discretion is the most important tool that an officer has. What is needed is a new training regimen for police recruits that addresses some of the deficiencies that have been linked to the use of excessive force.