Public Perception of Police Use of Force, Part 2

(Ed. Note – This is the second part of a two-post series. Read the first post here.)

On Oct. 7, 2015, more than 100 of the nation’s leading law enforcement officers and politicians met in Washington D.C. to discuss the recent rise in violence experienced in a number of major U.S. cities. Convened by then U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the purpose of the panel was to not only determine why violent crime was increasing in major cities but also how law enforcement could address it.

Police Use of Force: The YouTube Effect

The discussion took an interesting turn when the head of Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), Chuck Wexler, suggested that “perhaps the most difficult to calibrate, but the most significant, is this notion of a reduction in proactive policing.” Wexler was trying to point out a gap in cause and effect. Was crime a rising wave overpowering law enforcement agencies across the country, or was something else leading to the perceived rise in violent crime? Could it be that police were less proactive than they were? And if so, what was the cause?

Leaders from multiple major cities noted an emerging trend they were calling, “the YouTube Effect.” They’d observed their officers withdrawing from proactive policing following a cluster of high-profile cases where the use of force had been captured on video and distributed on different platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. These videos took split-second decisions and exposed them to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny.

Officers and law enforcement leadership weren’t prepared to manage the speed and amplification of negative sentiment made possible by social media. Seemingly overnight, what once might have been considered the exception became representative of law enforcement in its entirety. Officers found themselves existing in a limbo between law enforcement expectations and fearing that a single misinterpreted encounter could lead to a career-ending media frenzy. Or worse.

Later that month, in an address to several hundred law students, then FBI Director James Comey asked: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?” Additionally, Comey said reducing crime requires a strong police presence of officers willing to proactively seek out and stop criminal activity. Increasingly, it seemed, this willingness was offset by the perceived threat of viral videos.

Data Points: What Does Law Enforcement Think?

In 2017, the nonpartisan research group, the Pew Research Center partnered with the National Police Research Platform to conduct an expansive study of 7,917 American police officers, working in departments of 100 or more officers. The purpose of this study was to determine officers’ opinions of the policing profession amid widespread calls for police reform and anti-police protests.

The study, one of the largest of its kind ever conducted, surveyed American police officers on a variety of topics, mostly related to their feelings about their profession, how society views policing and how these things have changed over time. Considering the sample size (7,917), this study presents a statistically accurate representation of law enforcement’s feelings on the topic of policing.

Police on Policing

According to the study, 86% of officer respondents said the policing profession is now harder due to recent high-profile fatal encounters between police and minorities, and these incidents have made policing more dangerous. Additionally, it found 86% of officer respondents from departments with 2,600 officers or more said their fellow officers are more hesitant to stop and question individuals who may appear suspicious.

Furthermore, 85% of officer respondents in the 2,600 officer or more category reported being more reluctant to use force, even when force is warranted.

In regard to actually using force, 56% of officer respondents were concerned their peers would spend too much time diagnosing situations before acting decisively, while 41% were concerned their peers wouldn’t spend enough time diagnosing situations before acting.

That being said, 84% of officer respondents felt officers should be required to intervene when they felt a fellow officer was using excessive force.

When addressing use-of-force policies, 26% of officer respondents felt their department’s use of force guidelines were too restrictive, while 73% sided with the policies striking the right balance between restrictive and too lenient.

Additionally, 34% of officer respondents felt their department’s use-of-force guidelines were very helpful, while 51% felt the policies were somewhat helpful. The remainder of that final group (14%) felt that the guidelines were not helpful in use-of-force situations.
changing-legislation

Resolutions Through Legislation

The State of California chose to take a more official route to addressing police use of force following the March 2018 shooting of Stephen Clark by Sacramento Police Officers. Within days of the shooting, the Sacramento Police released the officer’s body cam footage, which was quickly shared across various social media platforms.

In response to widespread activist support, California legislators introduced Assembly Bill 392, which aimed to re-define when a police officer can use deadly force; recommending a shift from the Supreme Court standard of “reasonable” to a new threshold of “necessary”. Under this bill, an officer must justify why deadly force is necessary, though opponents worry it could subject the officer’s decision to the relatively easier analysis of 20/20 hindsight. Additionally, the bill includes the definition that an officer face an ‘imminent harm’ which “is not merely a fear of future harm, no matter how great the fear and no matter how great the likelihood of the harm, but one that… must be instantly confronted.”

Following initial disagreements about the language of AB 392, law enforcement organizations, the public, and legislators were able to come to a resolution on AB 392, which, as of this writing, is awaiting the Governor’s signature.

Decide in Seconds, Revisit for Years

The use of force is undergoing a rapid transformation catalyzed by factors like the “YouTube Effect” and new state legislation. There’s a natural tendency to resist change, but there’s no putting this particular genie back in the bottle. Law enforcement is still a relatively young profession, only formally coming to being in the early 19th century. What feels like change is actually evolution: as the environment introduces new challenges to law enforcement, agencies adapt and become better able to serve their community because of it.

There’s no denying that many use-of-force instances necessarily result from split-second decisions. What police executives can do to offset the frustration and reluctance stemming from the increased scrutiny is put systems and technology in place to ensure officers have the best preparation to make the best decisions in those seconds.