Study: Excessive use of force by police is “very rare”

Events in Ferguson, Missouri prompted Rand Paul to denounce the “militarization” of local American police forces. In the context of Ferguson, Paul’s complaint makes little sense. However, it echoed a theme that more thoughtful libertarians have been presenting for some time.

Part of that theme is the idea that a heavily armed police force will tend to be a more aggressive police force. “Production for use,” as Hildy Johnson would say.

But have modern-day police departments come to rely on the excessive use of force? The question has been studied in detail by William Terrill, an associate professor at Michigan State’s School of Criminal Justice and a former military policeman.

Terrill has studied dozens of law enforcement agencies. His focus has been on police use of force and culture.

Here, in summary form, is what Terrill found about police use of force:

[E]xcessive force is very rare in most police agencies. In fact, police officers often use less (not more) force within the framework of a force continuum structure (i.e., a policy framework used by 80% of the police departments in the United States).

In a related manner, police officers actually appreciate and value the use of administrative force policy. They do not want carte blanche to engage in coercive acts as they see fit, but rather organizational policy guidance and direction as to when and when not to use varying types of forceful tactics.

Was this true in the good old days before the police had fancy weaponry? I don’t know.

Many of Terrill’s other findings are of interest too. He found, for example, that officers who are the subject of frequent complaints over use of force tend to be officers who are more likely to engage and question law breakers. They are often labeled “problem officers,” but, says Terrill, might more appropriately be called “productive” ones.

Some of Terrill’s findings support a libertarian critique of policing to some degree. He found, for example, that officers are more likely to use forceful means in areas characterized by high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage and crime, irrespective of suspect behavior at the police-suspect encounter level. Thus, some officers may be prejudging the amount of resistance they expect to receive.

In addition, Terrill raises questions about heavy reliance on Tasars. He notes that although the use of such a weapon (as opposed to more traditional options such as the baton, chemical spray, or physical hands on force) reduces the odds of injury to police officers, it increases the odds of injury to citizens. As a result, he says, “police managers must grapple with the trade-off of balancing citizen injuries with officer injuries.”

It’s easy to believe that officers will tend to err on the side of injuring suspects they feel the need to subdue, rather than on the side of injury to themselves.

Overall, however, Terrill’s work should give pause to those who suggest that modern police departments have been seduced by heavy armaments into using excessive force.

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