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).

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