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(Even More) Unintended Consequences of Police Use of Force

Mistrust and resentment may make arrestees more violent once they’re in prison.
(Photo: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

(Photo: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

After months of turmoil, protests, and public discussion, police departments across the country, large and small, are taking stock of their policies with regard to their officers’ use of force.

Just hours before the graduation ceremony for new police officers in Cleveland this week, Mayor Frank Jackson said he had decided not to swear in one particular cadet because of a prior “use of force” incident report. In Renton, Washington, a small suburb of Seattle, the chief of police is looking at the Ferguson and Staten Island shootings and asking, “Could it happen here?”

And in tiny Zanesville, Ohio, police officers are taking advantage of a new statewide training program to improve community relations, which involves “learning about different cultures” and presenting about it to the class. (One officer described going to a gay club and being pleased to learn that the patrons were “just like us.”)

Counseling and increased monitoring in prisons of the inmates who had had violent interactions with the police might "alleviate feelings of mistrust and resentment that might manifest into anger and dissatisfaction, and result in rule violating behavior while incarcerated."

A previous column explored some of the unintended consequences of imposing sanctions on police officers for breaking their departments’ rules, or for using too much physical force when arresting someone. According to one study, if officers judge their punishments to be unfair or arbitrary, it may actually lead them to behave badly in the future. The authors of the article concluded that “how officers are treated in this process is at least as important as the outcomes that are reached.”

Another study, also written up in the journal Crime & Delinquency, examines a different aspect of the use of force by police officers, and raises the possibility of yet another unintended consequence. Criminal justice researchers Charles Klahm, Benjamin Steiner, and Benjamin Meade explore the relationship between police officers’ violent behavior during arrests, and then how the people being arrested behave later, once they’ve been convicted and sent to prison.

Social scientists have well established that there are strong causal relationships between being exposed to violence—and being a victim of violence—early in life, and how violent a person will turn out to be, later in life. So, the researchers wondered, could experiencing a violent arrest firsthand have the same impact on one’s later behavior?

As it turns out, yes. By analyzing criminal records data for all of the inmates in state prisons across the United States in a particular year, the authors did actually find a correlation between forceful arrests and those inmates’ subsequent bad behavior in prison—like assaulting another inmate or a staff member.

The authors offer an explanation. Maybe, even though a violent interaction during an arrest would be short, and may very well be justified, this could still be a traumatic experience for the person being arrested. And maybe after this trauma, inmates “may become less trusting of authorities, hold weaker beliefs regarding the legitimacy of the law, and develop tendencies to react aggressively when they feel threatened by others.”

This might all sound like a stretch. If officers subdued these people with force while they were arresting them, and then they later also broke rules and committed violence in prison, couldn’t that just mean that these particular people are prone to violence anyway?

But there’s a catch. People who resisted arrest, and then had officers use force to overpower them, were not actually more likely to commit assaults in prison. But, the people who did not resist arrest at the time, but who were exposed to force by police officers anyway, were likely to lash out later. This latter group also broke more rules (in non-violent ways), like disobeying staff orders and getting caught with drugs or alcohol.

The authors explained that these non-resisters would probably be more likely to feel a sense of injustice, and to channel their resentment toward other people in positions of authority. Just in the case of police officers taking offense to sanctions against them and then reacting badly as a result, the impact on an inmate’s behavior might depend on not whether the violent force was legitimate but whether they perceived that it was. They also suggested that counseling and increased monitoring in prisons of the inmates who had had violent interactions with the police might “alleviate feelings of mistrust and resentment that might manifest into anger and dissatisfaction, and result in rule violating behavior while incarcerated.”

This particular survey was very focused and specific, but maybe its lessons can be placed in a larger community context too. The results these researchers found could be read as even more evidence of the huge impact that police officers’ behavior can have, on both the attitudes and the actions of the people they serve.

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.