Beyond Confrontation: Community-Centered Policing Tools

Courtesy of Elvert Barnes

There is no single, universally accepted definition of use of force. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights defines use of force as a legal and appropriate tactic for police in "diffusing situations, apprehending alleged criminals, and protecting themselves and others."[4] The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) defines force as "the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject."[5]

In the wake of a mounting number of tragic deaths, this brief is offered as a tool to communities to help them better understand what standards guide the use of police force, how that force is applied across the country, and what strategies exist to minimize such acts of aggression. It is one of a series that will explore steps that can be taken to improve how police officers relate to the communities they serve. The practices in these briefs, beginning with this one exploring the use of force, will be consistent with the core elements of community-centered policing—building strong community partnerships and pursuing a problem-solving approach.

Acknowledging the role and impact of implicit racial bias in police encounters is a critical starting point.[6] Distinct from consciously held prejudicial perceptions and actions, implicit bias affects attitudes, decisions, and behavior in ways that an individual may not even be aware of.[7] Implicit bias among police officers can have deadly consequences, since police are armed and given discretion to use force when they deem appropriate. In fact, a 2012 study found that 224 police officers who had to make instantaneous decisions about whether a suspect was armed or unarmed in  a video-game simulation "were quicker to shoot an armed black person, and slower to refrain from shooting an unarmed black person, than they were with members of any other racial group."[8] Similarly, an earlier study found that officers were "uniformly faster to shoot an armed black target, relative to an armed white target, and uniformly faster to press the 'Don't shoot' button for an unarmed white target, relative to an unarmed black target."[9]

The social psychology concept of "stereotype threat" can also factor into police decisions about whether to use force when interacting with communities of color. For instance, black males who come into contact with police may exhibit physical symptoms of anxiety stemming from fear about being stereotyped as criminals—fear that may be misconstrued by police officers as guilt:

Concern about being judged unfairly by the police because of stereotypes will lead innocent black suspects to experience more arousal, a greater cognitive load, and engage in more self-regulatory efforts than whites during those encounters. Because police believe that nervous behavior is a non-verbal cue to deception… stereotype threat could, ironically, increase the likelihood that individuals will be perceived as suspicious and that this will lead police to initiate investigatory contacts with blacks disproportionately more often than with whites.[10]

Highlighting a further nuance involving the stereotype of black men as hyper-masculine, social psychology researcher Phillip Atiba Goff has found that, when a male police officer feels a perceived threat to his masculinity, he is more likely to use deadly force:[11]

An officer who feels a need to demonstrate his masculinity may be more likely to use force in general, but particularly against people who threaten his self-concept as a man… If African-Americans are seen as hyper-masculine, then the officer will feel more threatened.[12] 

The promising practices cited herein include both proven practices as well as those that are less tested but represent an innovative and thoughtful effort to address a problem. Highlighting practices of a specific police department is not meant as an endorsement of the department as a whole. A department may be implementing a strong effort in one area (for example, training), but nonetheless require significant improvement in another area (for example, in its oversight and accountability systems). Our goal is to highlight efforts that others can learn from, while acknowledging that many law enforcement agencies have progress to make on multiple fronts in how they relate to the communities they serve, particularly communities of color.

Promising strategies to minimize police use of force outlined in this brief include:

  • Set Clear Values and Standards
  • Establish Reporting and Accountability
  • Address the “Code of Silence”
  • Employ Appropriate Training Practices:
    • Procedural Justice Training
    • Scenario-Based Training
    • Adolescent Brain Development Training
    • Crisis Intervention Training
  • Implement Organizational, Discipline, and Accountability Systems:
    • Use-of-Force Incident Reporting and Investigation Procedures
    • Body-Worn Camera Technology               
    • Early Warning Systems
    • Data Collection and Transparency
    • Citizen Complaint Processes and Community Oversight
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