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Examining Police Use of Force in Communities of Color

Info: 7330 words (29 pages) Dissertation
Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Law Enforcement

In No Other Community: Examining Police Use of Force in Communities of Color



In communities of color throughout the United States, police use of deadly force, acts of misconduct and abuse have seemingly grown to epidemic proportions. And while violent crime may, in fact, be prevalent in these communities, no other areas or neighborhood groupings seem to have been subjected to the sheer numerical instances of the use of deadly force by the police as in the Black community. Yet there appears to have been few studies which have directed themselves towards considering the extent of these incidents and how they are impacted within the Black community.

This exploratory study seeks to examine issues related to incidents of police use of deadly force, racial/ethnic identity, and gender as they impact police interactions in communities of color, provide an examination of racial/ethnic disparities in the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers, and considers issues such as whether the suspect was armed or unarmed when fatally shot, whether any issues related to mental illness were known, and police accountability as a result of these incidents.

Keywords: use of force, deadly force, minority threat, police, African Americans

In No Other Community: Examining Police Use of Force in Communities of Color



The August 9, 2014 shooting of an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, MO by a White police officer; a second police shooting two weeks later less than four miles away; the shooting of a man running from a police officer in North Charleston, SC; the deaths of two unarmed black men in Tulsa, OK; a man shot while selling CD’s; and the death of a 12-year old in Cleveland, OH. The names of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Terrance Crutcher, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Akai Gurley have now generated a national outcry, with each of these incidents giving rise to renewed interest in not only the manner in which law enforcement addresses issues of community crime and safety, but also, and more importantly, the levels of force used by police, particularly where it concerns their interactions with members of communities of color.

The relationships between police and members of the Black community have long been controversial and tenuous, to say the least (Gabbidon & Higgins, 2008; Garner, Maxwell & Heraux, 2002; Harcourt, 2004; Mastrofski, Reisig, & McCluskey, 2002; Payne, 2001; Wagner, Christ, Pettigrew, Styellmacher & Wolf, 2006; Wittenbrink, Judd & Park, 1997). Complaints regarding racial profiling, police abuse and misconduct, and disrespectful treatment have been reviewed by numerous authors (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Durlauf, 2006; Harcourt, 2004; Reitzel & Piquero, 2006; Risse & Zeckhauser, 2004; Ruggiero & Taylor, 1997; Weitzer & Tuch, 2002; Wittenbrink, etal, 1997).

Yet, the issue of police shootings and other uses of excessive force have been a constant source of grievance in communities of color, so much so that it is widely perceived that there is an active conspiracy by police targeting young men of color and that these types of shootings only occur in communities of color. As well, the issue of police use of excessive force appears to be one that has had a wide level of consideration (Alpert & MacDonald, 2001; Alpert & Smith, 1999; Barkan & Cohn, 1998; Belur, 2009; Lee, 2004; Garner, et al, 2002; Hirschfield & Simon, 2010; Kimber, 2004; Klahm & Tilyer, 2010; MacDonald, Kaminski, Alpert, & Tennenbaum, 2001; Micucci & Gomme, 2005; Terrill, 2005; Terrill, Leinfelt & Kwak, 2006; Thompson & Lee, 2004; White, 2001), with several of these studies indicating a correlation between predatory crime and police use of force (Lee, 2004; MacDonald, et al, 2001; Thompson & Lee, 2004).

While it is without question that police use of force is not limited to communities of color, the use of violence by the police has become one of the most significant and pressing issues of life in these communities (Kania & Mackey, 1977). Yet, only a few have considered the impact of police use of force specifically in this context (Goldkamp, 1982; Jenkins, 1992; Meyer, 1980; Robin, 1963; Takagi, 1974). Hence, the question must be asked. “Are police shootings of African Americans in disproportionate numbers relative to their presence in the general population?”


The tensions between law enforcement and communities of color have existed since the days of slavery. While, most certainly, some of these tensions may be due to issues related to unconscious attitudes and beliefs (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008; Kairys, 2011; Quillian, 2008), racial profiling is believed to be widespread by many (Reitzel & Piquero, 2006). And there are constant, and consistent, complaints of dissatisfaction with police services in communities of color (Bradford, Jackson, & Stanko, 2009; Brunson & Weitzer, 2008; Correia, 2010; Elicker, 2008; Engel & Smith, 2009).

From complaints of officer rudeness to discriminatory treatment in the issuance of traffic citations (Childers, 2011; Haas, 2013; Gabbidon, Higgins, & Potter, 2010; Mastrofski, Reisig, & McCluskey, 2002); unresponsiveness in the provision of service (Rossler & Terrill, 2012); from racial stereotyping to false arrests (Dunham, Alpert, Stroshine, & Bennett, 2005); from stop and search tactics to the use of force (Briggs & Crew, 2013); to disparities in the incarceration ratios of Blacks to Whites in the prison systems (Jonathan-Zamir, Mastrofski, & Moyal, 2013), residents of these communities have seemingly become overburdened by what many believe to be racially-inspired treatment, which has no reasonable end in sight.

Threat theories are abundant which seek to explain the reasons for police use of force and other actions in minority communities (Bass, 2001; Chambliss, 1994; Chiricos, Welch, & Gertz, 2004; Chiricos, Hogan, & Gertz, 1997; Gerstenberger, Beatty, & Weatherby, 2014; Holmes & Smith, 2012; Meehan & Ponder, 2002; Osgood, 2000; Smith & Alpert, 2007; Smith & Holmes, 2003; Smith & Holmes, 2014). In general, these theories seem to indicate that the levels of crime, particularly violent crime, in these communities will dictate the amount of force that is exhibited by the police in their interactions with community members.

As an example, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (UCR, 2012), arrests for violent crimes in 2012 totaled 1,097,883, of which 37% (N=408,467) were Black, with a total estimated population of 165,509,499. This would seem to indicate that .66% of the total estimated population were arrested for violent crimes. Of the total 945,306 persons over the age of 18 arrested for violent crimes, 36% (N=343,326) were Black. Violent crimes were defined as offenses of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Also considered in these estimates were other assaults and weapons violations. These figures may then, by some, be viewed as providing justification for the use of force.

Yet, while it appears that crime rates in these communities may have an impact on police use of force (Sorensen, Marquart, & Brock, 1993), it has been suggested in several studies that racial stereotyping is also prevalent (Fyfe, 1982; Greenwald, Oakes, & Hoffman, 2002; Payne, Lambert, & Jacoby, 2002).

The increasing numbers of unarmed Black men being shot by the police, though, has raised serious concerns within the Black community, and indeed among law enforcement administrators. However, while many reports of these incidents have appeared in various news media (Danyiko, 2014; Dionne, 2014; Fletcher, 2014; Gabrielson, Jones, & Sagara, 2014; Kindy & Kelly, 2015; Kumeh, 2010; Walton, 2014), little scholarly research seems to have been completed which seeks to explain this issue.

Chaney and Robertson (2015) determined that the murder of unarmed Black suspects supports White Supremacy by advancing what they considered to be a racist legacy, assumes that all Blacks are dangerous, and results in little accountability among members of law enforcement, thus suggesting that the lives of African Americans have little or no value. Jefferis, Butcher and Hanley (2011) determined that when police act aggressively toward Black men, their actions may partially be influenced by race. Gabbidon and Greene (2013) found support for Goldkamp’s (1982) theories of why people of color are overrepresented as victims of excessive police force. When combining data from sources for cities with populations of 100,000 or more, Smith and Holmes (2014) determined support for a minority threat hypothesis, indicating that place effects are contingent on the existence of a high degree of racial/ethnic segregation. Buehler (2017) determined that mortality rates for non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic individuals was nearly two times higher, respectively, than that among Whites.

The lack of any large-scale governmental database dealing with deaths at the hands of police has also stymied research in this area (Chaney & Robertson, 2013; Gabrielson et al, 2014). Consequently there does not appear to be any substantive empirical information concerning the issue of police-involved shootings, fatal or otherwise, in the Black community. However, various crowd-sourced databases have placed the numbers of unarmed African Americans shot by police officers between 55 and 70 in 2015 and 2016 (The Counted, 2017; Washington Post, 2017). Others consistently seem to indicate that African Americans are three times more likely to be killed by the police than Whites (MPV, 2016).


Use of force by law enforcement officers, whether by lethal or non-lethal means, is nothing new to the field of policing, and researchers have sought long and hard to provide a better understanding of the use of force by police officers (Alpert & Dunham, 1997, 2004; Fridell & Lim, 2016; Fyfe, 1998; Legewie and Fagan, 2016; Reiss, 1971).  It should be noted that, in any incident where force is used, there is always the possibility, or even likelihood, of injury or death for both the officer and the citizen. And police officers, whether they are employed by a small town or large agency, are tasked on a daily basis with making decisions where some level of force may be needed. From simple traffic stops to calls involving domestic violence; from criminal events to calls to assist a disturbed person; from calls involving large disturbances to those involving arguments between two individuals. Each of these incidents may place an officer in a situation that requires them to make a decision on the use of force.

Much of the debate, however, regarding the use of force by law enforcement officers has centered on the belief that African Americans, particularly young Black men, are disproportionately killed by the police. In a wide range of jurisdictions, police officers are legally allowed, and may sometimes be obligated, to use force of varying levels to accomplish the task of making arrests, order compliance, protection of self and others.  However, where the actual decision to use deadly force is concerned, it remains closely guided by the judgment of the individual officer and their perceptions of danger. With the use of force by police being of considerable interest to both practitioners and others, this ability of the police has been investigated by a number of researchers (Adams, 1999; Clede, 1987; Klahm & Tillyer, 2010; Reiss, 1971; Smith & Petrocelli, 2002; Terrill, 2005; Walker, & Fridell, 1993; Wolf, Mesloh, Henych & Thompson, 2008).

In general, research has shown that, when police officers use force, injuries to citizens ranged from 17 to 64 percent, while injuries to officers ranged from 10 to 20 percent, with most injuries sustained being minor bruises, strains and abrasions (Holder, Robinson, & Laub, 2011). However, research also appears to indicate that, when a population-level perspective is taken, such as that considered in this study, mortality rates for Blacks during police encounters are from two to five times higher than for Whites (Buehler, 2017; Crosby & Lyons, 2016; DeGrue, Fowler, & Calkins, 2016; Drowos, Hennekens, & Levine, 2015; Jacobs & O’Brien, 1998; MPV, 2016; Nix, Campbell, Byers & Alpert, 2017; Sikora & Mulvihill, 2002). Some also have indicated that a neighborhood context may likely be applied where it concerns police shootings in the Black community (Terrill & Reisig, 2003).

Use of force analysis has typically centered upon examinations of the excessive use of police weaponry. Focused on conceptualizations as reported by those who have been confronted by police, these studies have considered the various reasons police use force, officer perceptualizations, racialized issues pertaining to use of force, firearms training methodologies, and sundry other issues relative to how police use force and when (Gallo, Collyer & Gallagher, 2008; Goldkamp, 1982; Harris, 2009; Hickman, 2006; Jefferis, Butcher, & Hanley, 2011; Klahm & Tillyer, 2010; Klinger & Brunson, 2009; Morrison & Garner, 2011; Phillips, 2010). And supported by various court decisions (Graham v Connor, 1989; Tennessee v Garner, 1985), the use of force by police is embedded in police culture.

The enigma associated with the deaths of unarmed young men of color at the hands of police officers, though, has brought about a completely new dynamic in the way the framework of police use of force is viewed. While considered as isolated incidents, numerous studies have consistently determined that force is used against Blacks by the police at higher rates than their representation in the general population (Banks, Eberhardt, & Ross, 2006; Jacobs & O’Brien, 1998; Kobler, 1975; Meyer, 1980; Robin, 1963; Sherman & Langworthy, 1979; Sorensen, et al, 1993; Takagi, 1974; Terrill & Reisig, 2003). It would seem, then, that police brutality is ignored, and that there is a failure by both state and federal prosecutors to curtail this issue (Panwala, 2002).

Compounding this issue is what seems to be a lack of accountability for officers who use deadly force, specifically as it is applied in communities of color (Panwala, 2002). Media accounts of various high-profile police shootings all seem to provide conclusive evidence of the difficulties involved with charging officers for alleged use of excessive force (Ali & Sherman, 2016; Funke & Susman, 2016; Perez-Pena, 2015; Williams, 2016). In studies conducted by Chaney and Robertson (2015) which, in part, considered the accountability of officers who had been involved in these shootings, they found that in only 12 cases, or 15 percent of those cases involving a fatality were officers either indicted or charged. Of these, less than 50 percent (N=5) were found guilty, mostly of lesser included offenses.

Citizens, statisticians, and law enforcement alike now seek to bring transparency and clarity to this topic. These efforts appear to be hampered, though, by the fact that no known, reliable governmental database exists that provides information concerning deaths at the hands of the police (Fyfe, 2002), even though collection of this data was mandated by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. However, in general, law enforcement agencies seem to think that there is no need to make the public aware of how many people are killed by police officers each year. Only a few agencies, such as the Philadelphia Police Department, New York Police Department and Los Angeles Police Department, have voluntarily provided this information, with others required to do so under court order (Butler, 2017).  In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, following an assessment of the Arrest-Related Deaths project, determined that the program’s methodology did not sufficiently identify arrest-related deaths and did not capture all reportable deaths in the process of arrest (Planty, Burch, Banks, Couzens, Blanton, & Cribbs, 2015). Likely this is due to estimates that nearly one-half of all police related shooting deaths are undercounted in the collection of data. This program was subsequently suspended as not meeting their data quality standards.

A number of crowd-sourced databases have recently been established, though, which seek to provide this information, and may be valuable for their research quality (Behrend, Sharek, Meade, & Wiebe, 2011; Zhao & Zhu, 2014). These datasources appear to provide significant information, not only regarding the basis for which force was used, but also the state of mind of the victim, as well as final resolution of each incident.


Data for this study were compiled from a crowd-sourced database found at fatalencounters.org, an Internet site which is a project that collectss media accounts and public records to create a national database of people killed by law enforcement, with recorded instances dating from January 2000 through June 2017. This datasource was found to include information on 18,014 instances of deaths due to some form of reported police interaction. After filtering for only those deaths occurring in the four year period of 2013 through 2016 which resulted from shootings, those which were non-suicidal, instances where the victim’s death was not the result of a domestic dispute, and considering only those in which the victim’s race was either White or African American, a total of 2,524 records were found to be relevant to the current study, for a total of 14.01% of the initial sample. From the reported descriptive narratives provided for each record, specific variables considered were victim race and gender, whether the victim was armed or unarmed (also whether arming was not specifically identified), mental health status, official disposition determined regarding the incident, and levels of officer accountability. Data was analyzed using frequency and cross-tabulated analysis.






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Lieutenant (Retired) Charles P. Wilson previously served with the Rhode Island College, Providence, RI Campus Police Department as a patrol shift supervisor. With a professional career dating from 1971, his previous law enforcement experience has included service as a Detective/Patrolman with the Woodmere Village, Ohio Police Department, where he also served as its first African American Chief of Police from 1988 to mid-1990. He earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree with an emphasis in Justice Studies from Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island, and is a four-term National Chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, Inc.

His research interests include issues pertaining to minority law enforcement, campus safety and police-community relations.

Dr. Shirley A. Wilson, Ph.D. currently serves as an Associate Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island where her specific area of instruction is in Organizational Behavior and Global Diversity. Her previous experiences have included service as the Coordinator for School/Community Relations with the Cleveland Heights-University Heights, Ohio Board of Education, and Personnel Analyst with the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. Her specific area of research is in the field of Mentoring, with emphasis on Black Female Professionals. She earned her Doctorate from the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Her research interests include issues pertaining to minority law enforcement, police-community relations, and mentoring of black female professionals.

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