Here's what we know (and what we don't know) about the use of force by police in America

Aug 22, 2014

Credit flickr/uneditedmedia

Before Mike Brown, before Kajieme Powell. Before Eric Garner. Before John Crawford. Before Ezell Ford. Before Sean Bell. Before Ramarley Graham. Before Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Malice Green and Keenan Ellsberry. Before Derek Copp. Before even Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, or any of the other names you might have heard.

Before any of these people were shot, or beaten or choked by police, citizens have questioned the use of force by police officers in America. 

We know that the ability to use force when necessary is central to the role of a public police officer. But who keeps track of when and why police officers use force?

It turns out, it's incredibly difficult for average citizens to find out. Police departments don't report how often they use force. Most of what we learn comes from the extreme cases that make the news

For a more representative picture, we have to rely on the work of outside researchers. 

The largest, and most recent source of information on police interaction with citizens comes from a report published by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics

The report, "Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2008", was conducted by surveying a representative sample of 60,000 people in the U.S. From this survey, we can say: 

  • Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans reported having face-to-face contact with a police officer in 2008. 
  • Among those people, nearly 90 percent say police acted properly during the contact. 
  • Less than 2 percent said they experienced the use of force, or the threat of force, by a police officer.
  • Among those who experienced the use of force, nearly three quarters believed the police officer used excessive force. 
  • Black survey respondents were more likely than white or Hispanic respondents to say they had force used against them, but not any more likely to say the use of force was excessive. 
  • Both black and Hispanic respondents who had face-to-face contact with police were less likely than whites to say police officers acted respectfully or properly.

If you want to know a little more about excessive use of force by police, you can check another BJS report: "Citizen Complaints About Police Use of Force," which found:

  • In 2002, large state and local police forces received more than 26,000 complaints about officer use of force
  • That translates to a rate of 6.9 complaints for every 100 sworn officers
  • Rates were higher in larger police forces, but in large forces, complaints were also more likely to be dismissed.

The federal government is required to try to collect data from local law enforcement agencies on the use of excessive force, but it doesn't do a very good job of it. There's no widely accepted definition of what constitutes excessive force, and most local agencies investigate themselves when it comes to citizen complaints. And there's evidence that many instances of the use of force by police go unreported by citizens. In the BJS survey cited above, less than 14 percent of those who said they were subject to improper force by police reported the incident to the department afterward. 

Another study found that police officers themselves don't always report the use of force to their superiors. This study, a survey of municipal police officers in Illinois published in 1994, found that: 

  • 1 in 5 officers reported seeing another officer use more force than necessary against a suspect.
  • 1 in 8 officers said their fellow officers had failed to report an excessive force incident.
  • More than 1 in 4 officers had witnessed a fellow officer harass a citizen because of race. 

Do police officers actually use force more often against racial minorities? 

The question of whether racial minorities are more likely to be subject to the use of force by police is, actually, somewhat complicated to answer. A survey of various research papers on the topic finds differing results.

People from minority racial groups do experience a disproportionate amount of police force. But people from minority groups also experience a disproportionate number of arrests, period. 

In 2010, African-Americans made up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 30 percent of all arrests. Because racial minorities are over-represented in the total number of police arrests, researchers have tried to use a statistical correction to determine whether race itself is a factor in the use of force against minorities, or whether minorities are more frequently subjected to police force simply because they are more frequently subjected to arrest. 

When statistical corrections are used, many studies find that minority suspects are no more likely to be subjected to police force than whites

But there's another context to consider when it comes to race and the use of police force. In a study published in 2003, William Terrill of Michigan State University cross-checked observations of police use-of-force with neighborhood characteristics. What he found is that when it comes to racial status and the use of police force, neighborhoods matter. Terrill concluded:

In sum, it appears race is confounded by neighborhood context: Minority suspects are more likely to be recipients of higher levels of police force because they are disproportionately encountered in disadvantaged and high-crime neighborhoods.

In other words, police do use more force when they're in the kinds of neighborhoods minorities are more likely to live in. 

One thing we can say for sure:

There's one type of force used by police that very clearly affects one racial group more than any other: deadly force. 

In a 1988 survey of research on the use of deadly force by police officers, James Fyfe concluded: 

Regardless of the care employed in restricting officers' shooting, every study that has examined this issue found that blacks are represented disproportionately among those at the wrong end of police guns.

Vox found that in the case of police homicide against a suspect who was not attacking an officer, 39% of those killed in 2012 were black.

In 2012, law enforcement agencies reported to the FBI 410 deaths at the hands of police officers. The website Vox.com obtained more detailed data on those deaths, and found that 31% of the reported "justifiable" homicides by police were against black suspects. The disparity was even worse when Vox looked at whether the suspect was attacking an officer when they were killed. Vox found that in the case of police homicide against a suspect who was not attacking an officer, 39% of those killed in 2012 were black. 

Reporting these deaths to the FBI is voluntary, so it is possible that more deaths actually occurred at the hands of police in 2012. We don't know for sure, because no one keeps track. 

What we don't know

We know that police officers sometimes have to use force when arresting a suspect. But law enforcement agencies are not required to report any information about when or why their officers use force. 

"They rarely, rarely would report this to the public," says MSU's Terrill.

He's been researching police use of force since the 1990s. He says most departments now require officers to fill out a report whenever they use force. But there's no widely accepted standard for what constitutes a "use of force." And many police departments don't use the forms to analyze police performance. 

"In most departments, I suspect they do little with that data," Terrill says. 

Most of what we know about the use of force by police comes from survey research, and observations of individual police departments by researchers like Terrill.

If you're concerned about police in your local area, the reality is it's unlikely you'll be able to know much about when or why they use force on the job.