The Impact of Suspect Race and Precipitating Incident on Community Members’ Assessments of Deadly Force Reasonableness

The contrast between many community members’ views about the extent to which force used by police is excessive and the criminal justice system’s determination of same suggests a “reasonableness divide.” Using survey data from 3600 nationally representative adults, this study assessed one possible reason for this divide—that community members evaluate the reasonableness of deadly force using factors that are not considered in legal assessments. The results affirmed this divide—finding that community members’ evaluations of deadly force incidents are impacted by the race of the subject and by the precipitating event. Policy and research implications are presented.

Published in Homicide Studies.

NC Officer Health, Fitness, and Wellness

At the direction of the N.C. Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission, and in a joint effort with partners at the North Carolina Justice Academy, researchers from Appalachian State University conducted a study aimed at understanding what benefit, if any, there would be to requiring ongoing, in-career fitness standards for North Carolina police and detention officers. In addition, we sought to understand the hurdles and concerns associated with requiring or implementing ongoing fitness standards. This report responds to these questions in three parts. First, we report findings about the mental and physical health of officers in North Carolina, as well as the relationship between the availability of officer fitness and the availability of fitness support and programming. Second, we assess police leader concerns about the implementation and obstacles related to ongoing fitness standards. Finally, using secondary data from a different Southeastern state, we assess the relationship between ongoing fitness standards and officer attrition. 

  • Study 1 reveals that, overall, officers in North Carolina are in poor physical and mental health, and in many ways are in even poorer health than the general public. Furthermore, officer health affects several aspects of job performance. Mandatory in-service physical fitness evaluations are associated with improved officer health and more frequent exercise, even in the absence of formal consequences like termination.
  • Study 2 reveals that physical fitness standards for incumbent officers are uncommon, and the biggest concern identified by agency leaders was staffing.
  • Study 3 reveals that neither mandatory nor voluntary physical fitness programs are associated with significantly more attrition.

Our report culminates in four recommendations:

  1. Require physical fitness testing throughout the career of a law enforcement officer.
  2. Do not incrementally adjust in-service physical fitness standards based on age.
  3. Promote physical activity among officers irrespective of in-service physical fitness standards through in-agency fitness centers and on-duty exercise.
  4. Implement holistic employee wellness programs in law enforcement agencies.

Ethnic diversity, Ethnic Polarization, and Incarceration Rates: A Cross-national Study

Recent political rhetoric both in the U.S. and abroad has drawn renewed attention to racial and ethnic conflict, state power, and punishment. The salience of minority group conflict on incarceration is well established in theory and research in the U.S. This study explores whether racial/ethnic composition explains incarceration rates throughout the world, rather than being a peculiarity of the U.S. It also evaluates the functional form of these relationships. Analysis of up to 132 nations indicates that incarceration rates are significantly associated with ethnic diversity and ethnic polarization. The lowest incarceration rates are observed in countries with substantial homogeneity or substantial diversity. Incarceration rates are highest in countries with moderate diversity but high polarization—where a sizable minority population is present, approaching parity with a majority group. Minority group conflict may be a troublesome contributor to punishment throughout the world and is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

Published in Justice Quarterly.

Racial Threat and Punitive Police Attitudes

Racial Threat Theory posits that punitive attitudes are produced when majority groups are alarmed by large or growing Black populations.  While research has identified a relationship between Black composition and support from community members for more punitive criminal justice policy, no research  has examined whether racial composition influences punitive attitudes among criminal justice personnel—even though they represent the population that can engage in discrimination.   This study advances our understanding of racial threat and police force by examining the relationship between Black population and punitive use-of-force attitudes on the part of police.   Using survey and census data for 10,205 police officers in 97 agencies, multilevel analyses reveal that officers report more punitive attitudes in jurisdictions with larger Black populations and that this relationship is concentrated among White police officers.  The results provide evidence that racial disparities in police outcomes are at least partly driven by motivational criteria (such as discrimination).

Demonstrations, Demoralization, and De-policing

Research Summary
This study examined relationships between public antipathy toward the police, demoralization, and de-policing using pooled time-series cross sections of 18,413 surveys from law enforcement officers in 87 U.S. agencies both before and after Ferguson and contemporaneous demonstrations. The results do not provide strong support for Ferguson Effects. Post-Ferguson changes to job satisfaction, burnout, and cynicism (reciprocated distrust) were negligible. Although Post-Ferguson officers issued fewer citations and conducted less foot patrol, effect sizes were minimal in magnitude. Cynicism, which was widespread both before and after Ferguson, was associated with reduced officer activity.

Policy Implications
Post-Ferguson protests in 2014 did not appreciably worsen police morale nor lead to substantial withdrawal from most police work, suggesting that the police institution is resilient to exogenous shocks. Low job satisfaction, however, was associated with fewer citations, and cynicism was negatively associated with both citations issued and community meeting attendance, indicating that agencies may need to address officer attitudes—irrespective of legitimacy crises—to promote proactive policing and community engagement.

Feeling Blue: Officer Perceptions of Public Antipathy Predict Police Occupational Norms

Recent protests against law enforcement have spurred claims by practitioners and editorialists that public antipathy toward the police may influence police occupational norms. A number of classic police ethnographies also suggest a link between perceived public antipathy and police culture, but limited empirical research has examined this claim. Using a sample of 12,376 sworn law enforcement officers who participated in the National Police Research Platform, and a series of ordinary least squares regressions, this study examines whether officers’ perceptions of public support predict their cultural orientations. Results reveal that officers perceiving greater public antipathy report higher levels of social isolation, work-group solidarity, cynicism toward the public, and coercive attitudes. We identify practical implications and potential organizational remedies to address these perceptions, and situate these findings within theoretical arguments of early police ethnographers and contemporary claims of the “Ferguson Effect.”

Published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.

Victim Age and Capital Sentencing Outcomes in North Carolina (1977–2009)

Age is prominent among theories of criminology and victimology. It is less conspicuous in punishment theory, despite its emphasis in retributive theory and lawmaking. The present study evaluated competing ‘years of life lost’ and ‘vulnerable victim’ hypotheses to examine the influence of victim age in capital sentencing decisions. Using case file data on the population of capital murder trials in the State of North Carolina (1977–2009), our findings produce mixed results. Our quantitative analyses suggest that death sentences are significantly less likely in direct proportion to victim age. Killers of elderly victims are less likely to receive the death penalty; conversely, the odds of a death sentences are slightly greater for killers of child victims. Supplementary qualitative analyses suggest that while many child and elderly victims were not per se ‘vulnerable,’ a substantial subset of each clearly were treated as such. We discuss implications for vulnerable victim research and the role of quasi-legal factors in case outcomes.

Published in Criminal Justice Studies.

Read the Full Article (publisher’s website).

Rape, Race, and Capital Punishment: An Enduring Cultural Legacy of Lethal Vengeance?

Historical analyses of southern statutes (i.e., Slave Codes, Black Codes, “Jim Crow,” etc.) and their enforcement reveals evidence of an enduring cultural legacy prescribing lethal vengeance to Blacks who violate White sensibilities, especially for Black males accused of sexually assaulting White females. Using a population of official data on capital murder trials in North Carolina (1977–2009), this study examines the degree to which this cultural legacy endures to the present by examining the joint effects of offender’s race and rape/sexual assault on the capital sentencing outcomes of capital murder trial involving White female victims. Our findings reveal support for the continuing endurance of this cultural legacy of lethal vengeance.

Published in Race and Justice.