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Fear of Being Branded Racist Increases Police Support for Excessive Force

New research finds the stereotype of a racist cop decreases officers' sense of moral authority, which may make them more likely to resort to coercive tactics.
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Members of the New York City Police Department attend their police academy graduation ceremony on March 30th, 2017.

Members of the New York City Police Department attend their police academy graduation ceremony on March 30th, 2017.

It's a tense time for racial relations, particularly when it comes to relationships between minority communities and the police departments that patrol them. Many officers are acutely aware of the stereotype of the racist cop, and are concerned that they may be perceived as treating people differently because of the color of their skin.

It turns out that worry may inspire poorer policing, including greater use of unreasonable force. New research finds evidence of "a particularly vicious cycle of stereotype threat, police force, and public trust," in which officers who feel their legitimacy has been questioned feel justified in resorting to coercive tactics. This was true of both black and white officers, according to the study, published in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

"Police are typically trained to use their moral authority as peace officers to resolve conflicts," lead author Rick Trinkner of Arizona State University said in announcing the findings. "But if that moral authority is called into question, they may feel they have limited tools to gain compliance, leading to more harmful actions with potentially disastrous results."

The researchers surveyed 784 police officers (patrol officers as well as sergeants) employed by a large, urban force, left unidentified. The respondents represented every station in the district; about 55 percent were white, and 80 percent were men.

They answered a series of questions measuring stereotype threats, such as "How much do you worry that people may think of you as racist?" and feelings of self-legitimacy, including "How confident are you in using the authority that has been given to you as a police officer?"

They were then asked the degree to which they endorsed inappropriate use of force, including "how much they approved of striking a resident for saying vulgar things to officers," and how important they felt it is to treat the members of the community where they work with respect.

After taking into account the officers' level of cynicism and fear for their own safety, the researchers found "elevated stereotype threat"—their fear of being viewed as racist—"was associated with lower self-legitimacy, which was in turn associated with more resistance to restrictions on force, greater approval of unreasonable force, and lower endorsement of fair policing."

That may sound counterintuitive. But the researchers point to a 2014 British study that may explain the connection. "Greater self-legitimacy may make police officers more assured, more able to engage in difficult decisions in constructive ways, more willing to allow members of the public a sway during processes or interaction and, crucially, inclined only to use force as a last resort to reestablish order," wrote researchers Ben Bradford and Paul Quinton.

"By contrast, officers who have a weaker sense of their own legitimacy," the criminologists write, "may be more sensitive to problems and provocations, and quicker to use physical force, because they lack the self-belief to assert their authority in other, less-confrontational ways."

Trinkner and his colleagues did find that one factor mitigated officer's feelings of illegitimacy: Older officers reported feeling more self-confidence and expressed less support for coercive policing than their younger colleagues. "This suggests that older officers may be especially well-positioned within a department to socialize younger officers to norms that are less aggressive," said co-author Erin Kerrison of the University of California–Berkeley.

So mentorship programs in which more experienced officers work with new recruits, showing them by example how to achieve a sense of self-confidence and legitimacy, may prove to be an effective antidote to this destructive dynamic. In addition, officers need to be taught not only how to recognize their own biases, but also how they are affected by the impression that they are being stereotyped.

"Conversations about police officers and stereotypes typically focus on the prejudices that officers bring with them on patrol," said senior author Phillip Atiba Goff of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "This discourse needs to expand to include the beliefs that officers have about themselves, and how that affects their work, and relationships with their communities."