Police Abuse of Force in the USA


Society has given the police the mandate to utilize force in pursuit of law, order, and justice. However, the possibility of this mandate and authority being abused remains one of the key challenges for police agencies and security policymakers across the US. Cases of police officers using excessive force have raised intensive debates among members of the public in the past. Some of these cases have been captured on camera, resulting in a widespread public outcry and criticism of the police force. Questions have also been raised regarding the limit to which the police use force. For over 40 years now, the issue of police use of force has been at the center of empirical inquiry. The current study seeks to investigate how officers’ experience, age, education level, and race relate to the abuse of force.

Literature review

(Smith, Kaminski, Alpert, Fridell, & MacDonald (2010) conducted an exploratory study to investigate factors that contribute to injuries that may be caused as a result of excessive use of force by police officers. They point out that incidents of police use of force often lead to injuries for either the police or the suspect or both parties. According to this report, the police apply or threaten to apply force in about 1-2% of their contact with citizens and that 15-20% of arrests made by police officers involve the use of force to tame suspects who resist arrest. Recent surveys with minority groups such as African-Americans and Latinos indicate that these groups have relatively little confidence in law enforcement. A majority of members of these groups believe that police officer are likely to use more force than necessary when making an arrest (Pew Research Center Survey, 2014).

According to Weisburd, Greenspan, Hamilton, Williams & Bryant (2000) studies on the police attitudes towards authority and their abuse of authority are relatively few. They point out that the few studies conducted have focused on particular police agencies, and that despite the studies being relatively low in number, they have provided valuable insight into the issue of abuse of authority by police officers. They report their findings that incidences of excessive use of force by police officers are quite low in American policing and that race and rank are some of the divisive factors in policing.

Studies on the attitudes of police officers towards their job indicate that most of them believe that law enforcement is a risky job. The number of guns per capita, as well as the rate of homicide, is relatively high in the US compared to other developed countries, and these factors have contributed to the risky nature of law enforcement in the country. Apart from that, the officers also believe that they are under strict scrutiny by the media and the public in general and that the media and the public are very much concerned about their abuse of authority as opposed to other issues affecting policing (Weisburd et al., 2000). Brandl and Stroshine (2012) study the role that officer job characteristics, attributes, and arrest activities play in explaining the use of force by police officers. In this study, Brandl and Stroshine (2012) utilize a sample size of 1084 officers sourced from a municipal police department as well as data from departmental reports.

Paoline and Terrill (2007) opine that education and experience play a significant role when it comes to police abuse of force. In their study, they examined the relationship between these two factors and the use of force by police officers. The independent variables in this study are officer education and officer experience while their use of force is the dependent variable. They report that varying levels of experience and education are directly related to differences in the utilization of force in encounters pitting officers and citizens and that officers with more experience as well as those who are highly educated are less likely to use force compared to their counterparts with less experience and lower education credentials. Harvey (2013) investigates reforms related to police use of force. He is of the view that the use of force by law enforcers is problematic, but remains an integral part of policing practice.

Despite the rates of police use of force being relatively low, a high percentage of suspects (75%) subjected to this treatment was of the opinion that the police application of force was excessive (Harvey, 2013). Harvey goes on to state that previous studies show that this excessive use of force is often directed to certain members of the community, an indication that some police officers abuse authority by giving preferential treatment to certain groups of suspects. The article discusses some of the policies and laws enacted to govern the use of force by officers, pointing out some of the obstacles to the implementation of these policies and legislation. Some of the barriers identified include poor leadership on the part of community leaders and police chiefs, resistance to change by unions and individual officers as well as lack of expertise on the part of monitors appointed by courts.

Smith and Holmes (2013) examine the excessive use of force by officers in minority communities. They argue that minority groups are often seen as a threat to law and order and that encounters between minority groups and police officers are most likely to involve some use of force. The police perception of minority groups as a threat may also emanate from the spatial organization of cities according to Smith and Holmes. They point out that police officers and minority groups are two distinct social groups who perceive each other differently. Encounters with minority groups may, therefore, trigger different psychological responses among officers, often leading to excessive use of force. Hall, Votova, Heyd, Walker, MacDonald, Eramian & Vilke (2014) conducted a study on the sudden death of suspects following the use of force by police officers. They point out that a sizeable number of suspects in police custody usually succumb to death as a result of injuries sustained as a result of the use of excessive force by officers. They utilize data from 4828 events in which officers in 7 different Canadian police agencies used force. They report that in the 4828 incidents involving the use of force, a higher percentage involved male subjects and that most of the cases involves suspects who were intoxicated or emotionally distressed during an arrest.


Research design

The current study will utilize a qualitative research design. The design will incorporate two different techniques namely telephone interviews and the use of secondary data. Most studies that investigate social phenomena utilize qualitative research designs, meaning that the design is the most appropriate for the current study. The use of secondary data will involve the review of incident reports, personnel files, and published data on the use of force as well as a review of past studies on the use of force by officers. On the other hand, telephone interviews will involve one on one discussions with randomly selected police officers from different police agencies across the country. The phone interviews are expected to take approximately 20 minutes to complete. Additionally, the study will take into consideration important ethical issues including participants’ privacy, confidentiality, and consent.

Research variables

The current study has one dependent variable and four independent variables. The dependent variable is the abuse of force by police officers while the independent variables are officer’s experience, Officer’s education level, and officer’s age an officer’s race. Abuse of force is defined as the excessive use of force by an officer in situations that do not warrant the application of force. This variable will be measured by reviewing incident reports and other reports that touch on the use of force by officers.

Officer’s experience is defined as the mastery of the policing work acquired through involvement in the job throughout a period. Analysis of the personnel files as well the number of years they have been in force will reveal their levels of expertizes. The officer’s age is defined as the number of years each officer has lived. The variable will be measured through telephone interviews and analysis of personnel files. The education level of an officer is defined as the highest level of education attained by each officer. This will be revealed through the interviews as well as the personnel files. Lastly, the officers’ race is defined as the particular to which the individual officers belong. This will be categorized into Hispanic, White, Black, Asian, and others. The race of individual officers will be revealed through the interviews and personnel files.

Sampling and the population

The population under investigation is police officers across the United States. A representative sample will be selected through a random selection of officers. Clustered sampling technique will be utilized as it enables for a represented sample to be achieved. In clustered sampling, the sampling unit is made up of groups of the population as opposed to single units. One of its advantages is that it is more economical compared to other sampling techniques. Additionally, it requires less time to list potential participants and is the most appropriate method for the survey of institutions.

The sampling frame includes all police departments across the country. The inclusion criteria of a police department into the sampling frame are that it should be the primary provider of police services to citizens and should be a county or municipal police agency. Additionally, it should have a minimum of 8 officers who work full time.

Secondary and primary data analysis

Multivariate analysis will be used in the analysis of both secondary and primary data. This approach is used to analyze information that corresponds to more than a single variable. It aims at identifying the relationship between each of the variables. The current study will utilize cluster analysis that facilitates the construction of smaller groups of data with the same traits from a larger group of heterogeneous data.


Brandl, S., & Stroshine, M. (2012). The Role of Officer Attributes, Job Characteristics, and Arrest Activity in Explaining Police Use of Force. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 24(5), 551-572.

Hall, C., Votova, K., Heyd, C., Walker, M., MacDonald, S., Eramian, D., & Vilke, G. (2014). Restraint in police use of force events: Examining sudden in custody death for prone and not-prone positions. Journal Of Forensic And Legal Medicine, 31, 29-35.

Harvey, S. (2013). Reforming Police Use-of-Force Practices: A Case Study of the Cincinnati Police Department. Columbia Journal Of Law And Social Problems, 4(46), 539-586.

Paoline, E., & Terrill, W. (2007). Police Education, Experience, and the Use of Force. Criminal Justice And Behavior, 34(2), 179-196.

Pew Research Center,. (2014). Stark Racial Divisions in Reactions to Ferguson Police Shooting. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Web.

Smith, B., & Holmes, M. (2014). Police Use of Excessive Force in Minority Communities. Social Problems, 61(1), 83-104. doi:10.1525/sp.2013.12056

Smith, M., Kaminski, R., Alpert, G., Fridell, L., & MacDonald, J. (2010) A Multi-Method Evaluation of Police Use of Force Outcomes: Final Report to the National Institute of Justice. Web.

Weisburd, D., Greenspan, R., Hamilton, E., Williams, H., & Bryant, K. (2000). Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority: Findings From a National Study. Web.