Racial Bias ‘Can’t Be Dismissed’ in Police Use of Force

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detain a suspect during a 2009 New Years Eve event. Photo by James Willamore/courtesy Creative Commons: James WIllamor/https://www.flickr.com/photos/bz3rk/

White officers use greater force on black suspects than they do on white suspects, according to a new study. At the same time, African-American officers were found to use similar force against both black and white suspects.

The study, co-authored by Prof. William Terrill, a police use-of-force expert with Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice,  and University of Central Florida criminal justice professors Eugene Paoline and Jacinta Gau, reviewed 6,000 use-of-force cases in seven cities over a two-year span.

According to Terrill, the data only suggested possible bias on the part of white officers when it comes to the use of force, but did not prove it.

Prof. William Terrill. Photo courtesy Michigan State University

Prof. William Terrill. Photo courtesy Michigan State University

“This is not, in any way, to say that police officers are ‘racist,’ but it is to say that race cannot be dismissed,” he observed.  “As our findings demonstrate, white officers used greater force on black suspects compared to whites.

“Hence, race is playing some sort of factor.”

Terrill added that their research also found black and white suspects offered similar levels of resistance toward the police irrespective of the officer’s race

The study, recently published in the British Journal of Criminology, looked at mid-level to large police agencies in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Knoxville, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon and St. Petersburg, Florida.

Only data from male police officers and male citizens were used, in order to remove outside variables such as female suspects and other races.

The study, entitled “Race and the Police Use of Force Encounter in the United States,” was based on data from the Assessing Police Use of Force Policy and Outcomes Project funded in 2005 by the National Institute of Justice, a research unit of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“There are no easy solutions to improving relations between police and communities, such as hiring more black officers or simply training white officers on non-biased policing,” Terrill pointed out.

“Police departments have to at least be open to the possibility that some of the disparity in police use of force behavior may indeed be based on race such as how officers view black suspects and the lens in which they view potential danger.”

This study is available for purchase only.  Journalists who wish to obtain a free copy should contact alice@thecrimereport.org  An abstract of the study, and information about how to purchase it  is available here.

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