Police Use-of-Force Self-efficacy: An Antidote to the Ferguson Effect?

Abstract

Research has consistently shown that officers’ perceptions of deteriorated relationships with the public are associated with physical and emotional disengagement with their work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this “Ferguson Effect” has also contributed to reluctance to use necessary physical force in the course of their duties, leading to compromises for officer safety and public safety. This study has two objectives: first, it is the only study to systematically assess the claim that apprehensiveness to use force is associated with perceptions of community support; second, it examines whether use-of-force self-efficacy reduces apprehensiveness to use force. Using OLS regression of officer surveys from 4,000 police officers in a Southeastern U.S. state, we find support for both hypotheses, as well as evidence of interaction effects. We identify several practical implications for agency leaders, and further encourage the development of use-of-force self-efficacy as a substantively and theoretically meaningful concept for researchers.

Published in the Journal of Crime and Justice.

Justifiability and culpability in lethal self-defense: Police officers vs. civilians

Purpose

Some critics argue that legal standards, even when and where equivalent, are differentially applied to officers and civilians. This study examined evaluations of justifiability and culpability for police officers versus civilians, as well as White shooters versus Black shooters, in a 2✕2 factorial experiment. It also explored how personal attitudes and characteristics correspond to those evaluations.

Methods

A national sample of 2492 online respondents evaluated culpability and justifiability involving a claim of lethal self-defense involving mistake of fact. After reviewing facts about the case, watching video of the incident, and being given jury instructions for murder and self-defense, respondents were asked to evaluate the justifiability of the shooting on a 6-point scale and render a verdict.

Results

Police officers and Black shooters were evaluated more favorably. Pre-existing confidence in the police demonstrated direct effects and interaction effects on perceived justifiability and likelihood of acquittal.

Conclusions

These results reveal a double standard that benefits police in cases of lethal self-defense. The strong correlation between pre-existing confidence in the police and acquittal of police officers indicates a need for further research on how a generalized public trust in police impacts particularized evaluations of conduct in specific cases.

Published in the Journal of Criminal Justice.

Racial Threat and Punitive Police Attitudes

Racial Threat Theory posits that punitive attitudes are produced when Whites are alarmed by large or growing Black populations. While research has identified a relationship between Black composition and support from community members for more punitive criminal justice policy, no research has examined whether racial composition influences punitive attitudes among criminal justice personnel—even though they represent a key population that can engage in discrimination. This study advances our understanding of racial threat and police force by examining the relationship between Black population and punitive use-of-force attitudes on the part of police. Using survey and census data for approximately 10,000 police officers in 97 agencies, multilevel analyses reveal that officers report more punitive attitudes in jurisdictions with larger Black populations and that this relationship is concentrated among White police officers. The results provide evidence that racial disparities in police outcomes are at least partly driven by motivational criteria (such as discrimination).

Published in Justice Quarterly.

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High-speed Mobile Networks and Police Repression during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Case of Nigeria

Purpose: Government repression against civilians while enforcing restrictive policies related to COVID-19 was widely reported in Africa. At the same time, many have claimed that high-speed mobile data and social media provide an accountability mechanism that may constrain police abuses. This study focused on Nigeria to examine (1) the effect of COVID-19 lockdowns on police repression and (2) whether widespread high-speed mobile data networks constrain or facilitate police repression.
Design/Methodology: Using data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED) and the Mobile Coverage Database, and focusing on regional sub-units in Nigeria, this study used Difference-in-Differences (DID) and triple difference (DDD) estimation on a sample of 423,925 observations (local government area-days) between January 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020 to estimate the causal effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and high-speed mobile data on police repression.
Findings: Difference-in-Differences (DID) analyses reveal no increases in police repression during lockdown periods. However, triple difference (DDD) estimation finds that certain forms of police repression were greater during lockdown periods in areas with substantial high-speed (4G) mobile networks (a proxy indicator of rapid information dissemination and video sharing). Net 4G effects, separate from the lockdowns, were also observed. Police repression increased in areas with a widespread 4G network, even without lockdowns.
Research Implications: Contrary to theoretical hypotheses derived from self-awareness theory, as well as anecdotal claims of a “viral video effect” or “Ferguson Effect” constraining police behavior, proliferation of high-speed mobile networks in Nigeria appears to facilitate, rather than constrain, police repression. Additional studies may explore through what causal mechanisms high-speed mobile network proliferation affects police repression. For instance, it is possible that high-speed mobile data and social media allow police to detect and repress citizen behaviors they disapprove of, rather than permitting citizens to correct police behaviors they disapprove of.
Originality/Value: Although many studies have explored the COVID-19 pandemic and police behavior in Western countries, only a few have examined its effects in states with even more troubled policing institutions, including those in sub-Saharan Africa. The findings of increased government repression during lockdowns in areas with 4G proliferation, as well as the independent effects of 4G facilitating police repression even without lockdowns, present significant counterevidence to observations from the U.S. and elsewhere, which has suggested that the ability to rapidly and widely share videos of police misconduct via mobile devices can limit police repression. Such effects were not found in Nigeria.

Published in Policing: An International Journal

Ethnic diversity, Ethnic Polarization, and Incarceration Rates: A Cross-national Study

Recent political rhetoric both in the U.S. and abroad has drawn renewed attention to racial and ethnic conflict, state power, and punishment. The salience of minority group conflict on incarceration is well established in theory and research in the U.S. This study explores whether racial/ethnic composition explains incarceration rates throughout the world, rather than being a peculiarity of the U.S. It also evaluates the functional form of these relationships. Analysis of up to 132 nations indicates that incarceration rates are significantly associated with ethnic diversity and ethnic polarization. The lowest incarceration rates are observed in countries with substantial homogeneity or substantial diversity. Incarceration rates are highest in countries with moderate diversity but high polarization—where a sizable minority population is present, approaching parity with a majority group. Minority group conflict may be a troublesome contributor to punishment throughout the world and is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

Published in Justice Quarterly.

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Worried Sick: Perceptions of Low Public Support, Stress, and Somatic Health Problems in Law Enforcement

Recent surveys suggest that confidence in police reached its lowest level on record in the wake of controversial police custody deaths and associated protests in recent years. Meanwhile, research has found links between perceptions of low public support for police and a variety of negative outcomes among police officers, including stress and withdrawal. The consequences of psychological stress, according to much other research, include a variety of physical health problems. The present study synthesizes these bodies of research by examining whether perceptions of low public support are associated with physical, somatic symptoms in police officers, including headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances, and upper respiratory infections. Structural equation modelling of 4,221 officer surveys from a Southeastern U.S. state collected in January of 2022 suggests that officers are quite literally worried sick about poor police–public relations, and that stress mediates this relationship. We discuss the implications of these findings for officer wellness and the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing among officers. Furthermore, we discuss practical recommendations for police leaders who may be struggling to promote officer wellness during a period of intense public scrutiny.

Published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice

The Impact of Suspect Race and Precipitating Incident on Community Members’ Assessments of Deadly Force Reasonableness

The contrast between many community members’ views about the extent to which force used by police is excessive and the criminal justice system’s determination of same suggests a “reasonableness divide.” Using survey data from 3600 nationally representative adults, this study assessed one possible reason for this divide—that community members evaluate the reasonableness of deadly force using factors that are not considered in legal assessments. The results affirmed this divide—finding that community members’ evaluations of deadly force incidents are impacted by the race of the subject and by the precipitating event. Policy and research implications are presented.

Published in Homicide Studies.

NC Officer Health, Fitness, and Wellness

At the direction of the N.C. Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission, and in a joint effort with partners at the North Carolina Justice Academy, researchers from Appalachian State University conducted a study aimed at understanding what benefit, if any, there would be to requiring ongoing, in-career fitness standards for North Carolina police and detention officers. In addition, we sought to understand the hurdles and concerns associated with requiring or implementing ongoing fitness standards. This report responds to these questions in three parts. First, we report findings about the mental and physical health of officers in North Carolina, as well as the relationship between the availability of officer fitness and the availability of fitness support and programming. Second, we assess police leader concerns about the implementation and obstacles related to ongoing fitness standards. Finally, using secondary data from a different Southeastern state, we assess the relationship between ongoing fitness standards and officer attrition. 

  • Study 1 reveals that, overall, officers in North Carolina are in poor physical and mental health, and in many ways are in even poorer health than the general public. Furthermore, officer health affects several aspects of job performance. Mandatory in-service physical fitness evaluations are associated with improved officer health and more frequent exercise, even in the absence of formal consequences like termination.
  • Study 2 reveals that physical fitness standards for incumbent officers are uncommon, and the biggest concern identified by agency leaders was staffing.
  • Study 3 reveals that neither mandatory nor voluntary physical fitness programs are associated with significantly more attrition.

Our report culminates in four recommendations:

  1. Require physical fitness testing throughout the career of a law enforcement officer.
  2. Do not incrementally adjust in-service physical fitness standards based on age.
  3. Promote physical activity among officers irrespective of in-service physical fitness standards through in-agency fitness centers and on-duty exercise.
  4. Implement holistic employee wellness programs in law enforcement agencies.

Demonstrations, Demoralization, and De-policing

Research Summary
This study examined relationships between public antipathy toward the police, demoralization, and de-policing using pooled time-series cross sections of 18,413 surveys from law enforcement officers in 87 U.S. agencies both before and after Ferguson and contemporaneous demonstrations. The results do not provide strong support for Ferguson Effects. Post-Ferguson changes to job satisfaction, burnout, and cynicism (reciprocated distrust) were negligible. Although Post-Ferguson officers issued fewer citations and conducted less foot patrol, effect sizes were minimal in magnitude. Cynicism, which was widespread both before and after Ferguson, was associated with reduced officer activity.

Policy Implications
Post-Ferguson protests in 2014 did not appreciably worsen police morale nor lead to substantial withdrawal from most police work, suggesting that the police institution is resilient to exogenous shocks. Low job satisfaction, however, was associated with fewer citations, and cynicism was negatively associated with both citations issued and community meeting attendance, indicating that agencies may need to address officer attitudes—irrespective of legitimacy crises—to promote proactive policing and community engagement.

Published in Criminology & Public Policy

Feeling Blue: Officer Perceptions of Public Antipathy Predict Police Occupational Norms

Recent protests against law enforcement have spurred claims by practitioners and editorialists that public antipathy toward the police may influence police occupational norms. A number of classic police ethnographies also suggest a link between perceived public antipathy and police culture, but limited empirical research has examined this claim. Using a sample of 12,376 sworn law enforcement officers who participated in the National Police Research Platform, and a series of ordinary least squares regressions, this study examines whether officers’ perceptions of public support predict their cultural orientations. Results reveal that officers perceiving greater public antipathy report higher levels of social isolation, work-group solidarity, cynicism toward the public, and coercive attitudes. We identify practical implications and potential organizational remedies to address these perceptions, and situate these findings within theoretical arguments of early police ethnographers and contemporary claims of the “Ferguson Effect.”

Published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.