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214 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force: A Review of the Evidence (2010).
Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7(2). pp. 214-239
© 2010 Southwestern Association of Criminal Justice
UNDERSTANDING POLICE USE OF FORCE:
A REVIEW OF THE EVIDENCE
Charles F. Klahm IV
St. Joseph’s College
University of Texas at San Antonio
The current study provides a thorough content analysis of use of force studies published
in peer-reviewed journals between 1995 and 2008. The most commonly used explanatory
factors are discussed in terms of their influence on police officers’ decisions to use force during
encounters with suspects. Based on the empirical evidence summarized, it appears that few
suspect and encounter characteristics are highly influential in determining use of force by
police. Moreover, most of the variables used throughout the literature seem to have a mixed
relationship with or appear to be poor predictors of use of force by police. We offer possible
explanations for the inconsistent findings and suggestions for future research in this area.
Key Words: Police, Force, Violence, Discretion
The police are tasked with making a variety of decisions and the duty to address
something-now” (Bittner, 1974: 30). This broad mandate involves many different functions,
including crime fighter (Manning, 1978, 1992), order maintenance or peacekeeper (Greene,
2000; Kelling & Moore, 1988; Wilson, 1968; Wilson & Kelling, 1982), service delivery (Eck &
Rosenbaum, 1994), problem solver (Eck & Spelman, 1987; Goldstein, 1979, 1990; Kelling &
Moore, 1988), and dispenser of force (Bittner, 1970,1974; Muir, 1977). This potpourri of roles
produces definitions of police work that are not consistent and present a significant challenge to
understanding police work from a scientific perspective.
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 215
Arguably the most defining characteristic of police work is their ability to use force to
enforce the law (Bittner, 1970); they are uniquely situated and authorized to employ various
levels of force to compel specific responses from citizens. These actions have been studied
since the “discovery” of discretion in the middle of the 20th Century. Initially, police use of
“normal” and non-lethal force only received scant attention, and it was not until the mid 1980’s
that non-lethal force became a popular topic for academics. Since then, more research attention
has been focused on examining the extent, nature, and correlates of non-lethal police force.
Unfortunately, due to its rare occurrence (NIJ, 1999), use of force is not well understood despite
the fact that scholars have been researching it for nearly sixty years.
Sherman (1980) and Riksheim and Chermak (1993) initially reported on the state of
knowledge regarding police behavior broadly, and use of force specifically, by summarizing
existing studies of police behavior. Since these pioneering pieces, the use of force literature has
experienced significant growth over the last twenty years. Thus, a comprehensive update on the
correlates of use of force by police is necessary. We aim to accomplish this goal by
summarizing and grouping the primary correlates of use of force by borrowing from the
template employed by Riksheim and Chermak (1993) and focusing on research within the past
twenty years. This comprehensive review will assist in forming the foundation for a new wave
of research questions and generate a research agenda that studies arguably the most defining
aspect of police work.
To effectively catalog and understand the correlates of force, we borrow from the
pioneering and widely cited work of Sherman (1980) and Riksheim and Chermak (1993) and
examine various studies of use of force by police published between 1995 and 2008. This study
period was selected for several reasons. First, in 1995, a comprehensive definition for use of
force within the academic community was presented (Garner, Schade, Hepburn, & Buchanan,
1995); thus, it was expected that most, if not all, studies after 1995 would use that definition of
force in their assessment of this phenomenon. Second, in the mid-1990s, the use of force
continuum became a prominent measure of force among scholars studying police use of force.
As a result, scholars began to include nonviolent police behaviors in their measures of force that
were not included in earlier studies. Last, Riksheim and Chermak’s (1993) replication of
Sherman’s (1980) literature review reported on studies conducted between 1980 and 1993.
Therefore, their review provided a detailed synopsis of the field’s knowledge regarding police
use of force up to the mid-1990’s, but no recent comprehensive review has been undertaken.
A comprehensive and scientific methodology was instituted to identify all relevant
studies. Initially, multiple Boolean search terms were created from a combination of
words/phrases, such as “police”, “use of force”, “use of violence”, and “forceful encounters”.
These search terms were then used to gather literature consolidated in the Criminal Justice
Periodicals Index, which searches peer-reviewed journals publishing studies on criminal justice,
broadly, and policing, specifically. Forty-one studies were originally identified, each directly
216 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
addressing a dimension of use of force by police. Of these, twenty-eight used multivariate
analyzed incidents where police resorted to force during an encounter
with a suspect; two studies examined officer attitudes or perceptions regarding the use of force
one focused on internal affairs investigations for use of force
; and one evaluated agency level
rates of reported use of force incidents
. The remaining thirteen studies did not conduct
multivariate analyses and only provided a general overview of use of force in terms of
univariate descriptive statistics or bivariate relationships. These studies were removed from
further consideration, as the state of research has changed recently to require more rigor in
analysis with multivariate analysis now considered the minimum threshold for scientific study.
Two additional studies were removed from consideration because the samples focused on
deported illegal immigrants, which are very different from the suspects described in traditional
policing studies. Finally, three studies that relied on vignette analysis were removed due to
limitations associated with those data. The remaining twenty-three studies using multivariate
analyses were analyzed and summarized in Table 1.
Across the twenty-three studies a total of 212 different independent variables were
employed to explain various dimensions of police use of force. Due to space limitations, all
212 are not discussed, rather the discourse here is limited to the most commonly used variables
throughout the literature. Similar to Riksheim and Chermak (1993), these factors are grouped
by suspect, encounter, and officer characteristics. The constellation of factors used to predict
police force are discussed in this order to reflect the nested structure of police-citizen encounter
data. That is, data relating to police-citizen encounters correspond to a natural, hierarchical
structure in which suspect and encounter characteristics are nested within officers, which in turn
are nested within agencies and communities.
Suspect characteristics are frequently examined by studies exploring use of force by
police. Suspect demographics (i.e., race/ethnicity, gender, and age) are common foci, but
demeanor, social class, and the use of drugs/alcohol are also variables of interest in more
contemporary inquiries. Each of these factors is reviewed in detail below.
Similar to studies examining other criminal justice decision points, the race/ethnicity of
Alpert, Dunham, & MacDonald (2004); Burke & Mikkelsen (2004); Crawford & Burns (1998); Engel, Sobol, & Worden (2000);
Garner, Maxwell, & Heraux (2002); Kaminski, Digiovanni, & Downs (2004); Kop & Euwema (2001); Lawton (2007); McCluskey &
Terrill (2005); McCluskey, Terrill, & Paoline (2005); Morabito & Doerner (1997); Norris, Birkbeck, & Gabaldon (2006); Paoline &
Terrill (2004); Paoline & Terrill (2007); Phillips & Smith (2000); Phillips, Rodriguez, & Hagan (2002); Phillips, Hagan, & Rodriguez
(2006); Schuck (2004); Sun & Payne (2004); Terrill & Mastrofski (2002); Terrill & Reisig (2003); Terrill, Paoline, & Manning
(2003); Terrill (2005); Terrill, Leinfelt, & Kwak (2008)
Holmes, Reynolds, Holmes, & Faulkner (1998); Son, Davis, & Rome (1998)
McElvain & Kposowa (2004)
Alpert & MacDonald (2001)
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 217
TABLE 1. SUMMARY OF RESEARCH FINDINGS ASSOCIATED WITH USE OF
FORCE BY VARIABLE
Social class (lower)
218 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
the suspect occupies a considerable amount of research attention. This is particularly salient in
the context of force due to the historically contentious relationship between minority
communities and the police. The empirical evidence is mixed on this issue, but several studies
documented that a suspect’s race/ethnicity did not influence whether an officer used force
during an encounter (Engel et al., 2000; Lawton, 2007; McCluskey et al., 2005; McCluskey &
Terrill, 2005; Morabito & Doerner, 1997; Phillips & Smith, 2000; Sun & Payne, 2004).
Importantly, some of these findings were consistent across multiple models; for example, Engel
et al. (2000) estimated nine models and race/ethnicity was not statistically significant in any of
the analyses. Similarly, Phillips and Smith’s (2000) findings of no race/ethnicity effect were
consistent across two models, and Sun and Payne (2004) derived the same finding across three
models. Moreover, Terrill (2005) examined behavioral sequences between the suspects and
officers in his sample and reported that suspect race/ethnicity did not affect whether an officer
skipped levels on the force continuum or increased or decreased the amount of force they used
during an encounter.
In spite of the strong evidence suggesting that a suspect’s race/ethnicity does not
influence police use of force, some studies have reported contradictory findings. For example,
Terrill and Mastrofski (2002) found that non-white citizens were more likely to be subjected to
some form of force than their white counterparts (see also Terrill et al., 2003). Moreover,
several other studies have found that suspect race/ethnicity produced mixed results, depending
on the model that was estimated. Garner et al. (2002) discovered that Black suspects were more
likely to have force used against them in situations of compliance, but race/ethnicity was not a
factor in encounters involving resistance. Several other studies have also produced mixed
results (Kaminski et al., 2004; Paoline & Terrill, 2004, 2007; Schuck, 2004; Terrill et al., 2008).
For instance, Terrill and Reisig (2003) initially reported that minority suspects were more likely
to have force used against them than white suspects; however, when neighborhood contextual
factors were introduced into the model, suspect race/ethnicity no longer retained significance.
The gender of the suspect has also received considerable attention in studies of force and
consistently demonstrates that male suspects are more likely to have forced used against them
during police-citizen encounters (Garner et al., 2002; McCluskey et al., 2005; McCluskey &
Terrill, 2005; Phillips & Smith, 2000; Sun & Payne, 2004; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002; Terrill &
Reisig, 2003; Terrill et al., 2003). Some studies indicated mixed results for gender (Crawford
& Burns, 1998; Paoline & Terrill, 2004, 2007; Schuck, 2004; Terrill, 2005). For example,
Kaminski et al. (2004) discovered that officers were no more or less likely to use a firm grip on
male suspects compared to females; however, officers were more likely to use a higher level of
force on male suspects compared to their female counterparts. Finally, a few select studies
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 219
reported that suspect gender was not related to use of force (Engel et al., 2000; Lawton, 2000;
Morabito & Doerner, 1997).
The third suspect demographic, age, has been inconsistently linked to the use of force.
Of those studies that reported a relationship between age and use of force, the majority of
empirical evidence suggested that law enforcement officers were less likely to use force on
older suspects (McCluskey & Terrill, 2005; McCluskey et al., 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2007;
Phillips & Smith, 2000; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002; Terrill & Reisig, 2003; Terrill et al., 2003).
The evidence is not completely consistent, however, as Paoline and Terrill (2004) reported that
male officers were less likely to use verbal and physical force against older citizens, whereas
being older only reduced the likelihood of physical force when the encounter involved a female
officer. Similarly, Crawford and Burns (1998) found that officers were less likely to use a
physical restraint against younger citizens, but were more likely to use some form of nonlethal
force (see also Terrill, 2005). They also reported that citizen age did not influence whether an
officer issued a verbal command, used chemical spray or a firearm. Similar non-significant
findings were presented in other studies (Engel et al., 2000; Garner et al., 2002; Kaminski et al.,
2004; Terrill et al., 2008). For example, Sun and Payne (2004) discovered that police in their
sample were no more or less likely to respond coercively to older citizens when resolving
Apart from suspect demographics, suspect demeanor within the context of the police-
citizen encounter has also received a considerable amount of research attention. Collectively,
the evidence is mixed with some studies reporting disrespectful suspects were more likely to
have force used against them, others citing no demeanor effect, and still others reporting
inconsistent results within the same study. For example, Engel et al. (2000) reported that
disrespectful citizens were more likely to be subjected to force than their respectful counterparts
across nine different models. They also examined how demeanor interacted with other factors,
but these terms did not achieve statistical significance. Sun and Payne (2004) also reported that
officers were more likely to resolve a dispute by responding coercively when the citizen
involved was disrespectful (see also Garner et al., 2002 and Kaminski et al., 2004).
Contrary to these findings, other studies have suggested inconsistent results. For
example, in one study, poor suspect demeanor did not influence the use of a verbal command or
firearm, but angry or aggressive suspects were more likely to have a chemical spray or
nonlethal weapon used against them (Crawford & Burns, 1998). Similarly, Terrill (2005)
reported a null effect for demeanor in three of the four models he estimated but he found that
officers were less likely to jump levels of force (both up and down the continuum) when
confronted with a disrespectful suspect (see explanation on p. 132). Finally, a group of studies
220 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
reported that suspect demeanor was not related to use of force (McCluskey et al., 2005;
McCluskey & Terrill, 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2004, 2007; Phillips & Smith, 2000; Terrill et
al., 2003). For example, Terrill and Mastrofski (2002) reported that suspects who were
disrespectful toward the police in language or gesture were no more or less likely to have force
used against them than their more polite counterparts.
Studying suspect demeanor has also been criticized due to its operationalization and
measurement (Engel, Klahm, & Tillyer, 2010). The most pervasive problem throughout the
literature is that demeanor is measured as a number of different behaviors, all of which may not
be equivalent but are nonetheless treated as reflecting the same conceptual idea. This might
account for the divergent results reported across studies. Aside from this issue, in most
instances, suspect demeanor is measured according to a third party assessment (observers) and
thus might not truly reflect how the officer involved in the encounter perceived his or her
Social class is a classic consideration for assessments of equal treatment by the police for
all citizens. The majority of research examining suspect social class and use of force was
inconclusive with some research suggesting that there was no relationship between social class
and use of force (McCluskey et al., 2005; Sun & Payne, 2004), and other studies suggesting that
an officer’s propensity to use force was influenced by the social class of the citizen involved in
the encounter (McCluskey & Terrill, 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2007; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002;
Terrill et al., 2003; Terrill & Reisig, 2003). Finally, others have reported inconsistent effects
for this factor in the same study (see Paoline & Terrill, 2004 and Terrill, 2005). It is important
to heed Friedrich’s (1980) caution that it is difficult to disentangle the effects of race/ethnicity
and social class. Thus, any findings regarding social class should be considered tenuous at best.
Moreover, similar to the issue concerning demeanor, most of these studies used measures of
social class that were based on an observer’s perception of the suspect, which may have been
influenced by the neighborhood context and incongruent with the officer’s assessment.
Suspect’s use of alcohol and/or drugs (i.e., intoxication) and its relationship with police
behavior has a long history of research (Reiss, 1971; Friedrich, 1980). The body of
contemporary research offers a somewhat mixed picture of a relationship between intoxication
and use of force. Several studies have reported that suspects who were under the influence of
drugs or alcohol at the time of their encounter with police were more likely to have force used
against them than their sober counterparts (Engel et al., 2000; McCluskey & Terrill, 2005;
McCluskey et al., 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2007; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002; Terrill et al., 2003;
Terrill et al., 2008). Conversely, other studies have suggested a less direct relationship. For
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 221
example, Crawford and Burns (1998) reported that suspects under the influence of alcohol were
more likely to have a verbal command levied at them, whereas drug intoxication had no effect
on this outcome. Similarly, they reported that suspects under the influence of drugs were more
likely to experience a nonlethal weapon attack but that police were no more or less likely to use
this type of force on suspects under the influence of alcohol (see also Garner et al., 2002;
Lawton, 2007; Paoline & Terrill, 2004; and Terrill, 2005). Other studies have reported null
findings including Morabito and Doerner (1997) who reported that officers were no more or
less likely to use OC spray against intoxicated suspects prior to or after policy changes
regarding the deployment of OC spray (see also Phillips & Smith, 2000 and Schuck, 2004).
Research has also explored the influence of encounter characteristics on the use of force
by police. Encounters characteristics reflect factors, not directly linked to the suspect, that vary
across police-citizen situations. These factors include the presence of a weapon during the
encounter, if the officer proactively initiated the contact, the suspect resisted, if an arrest
occurred, the presence of other officers or other citizens, and if there was conflict between the
officer and citizen within the encounter. The evidence regarding each of these elements is
It seems intuitive that suspects possessing a weapon would be more likely to have force
used against them due to the inherent danger they might pose to the officer and/or public. Few
studies, however, actually assess the impact of this characteristic and the empirical evidence
regarding its effect is mixed. A handful of studies have, indeed, found that suspects brandishing
a weapon were more likely to have force used against them (McCluskey et al., 2005; Paoline &
Terrill, 2007; Sun & Payne, 2004; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002). Other studies, however, have
reported mixed results (e.g., Crawford & Burns, 1998; Kaminski et al., 2004; Morabito &
Doerner, 1997; and Terrill et al., 2003). For example, Paoline and Terrill (2004) discovered
that female officers were no more or less likely to resort to verbal or physical force when the
suspect involved in the encounter was carrying a weapon; however, their male counterparts
were more likely to use physical force when a suspect was wielding a weapon, but no more or
less likely to use verbal force. Lastly, contrary to expectation, a single study found that
possessing a weapon did not influence an officer’s likelihood of using force (McCluskey &
222 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
Very few studies prior to the mid-1990s examined the effect that an officer initiating
contact had on the likelihood of using force (Riksheim & Chermak, 1993; Sherman, 1980).
Since then, several studies have included such a measure and the empirical evidence is mixed.
Several studies found that when police proactively initiate an encounter they were more likely
to apply force (McCluskey & Terrill, 2005; McCluskey et al., 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2007;
Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002), whereas others reported inconsistent effects across models. For
example, Garner et al. (2002) discovered that proactively entering an encounter was not related
to force when the suspect was complaint, but was predictive of force when the citizen resisted
(see also, Paoline & Terrill, 2004; Terrill, 2005; and Terrill et al., 2003). Most recently, Terrill
et al. (2008) reported that their findings were dependent upon the analytical technique they
used. The results of an ordinal regression model indicated that officers were less likely to use
force during a proactive encounter; however, a logistic regression model produced no
statistically significant effects. Finally, Engel et al. (2000) reported no relationship between
proactively engaging a citizen in an encounter and use of force.
Terrill and Mastrofski (2002) and Garner et al. (2002) drew attention to the fact that
police-citizen encounters are dynamic in nature. As such, they emphasized the importance of
capturing suspect behaviors occurring during police encounters that might precipitate the use of
force. Failure of early studies to capture the dynamic nature of these encounters constrained our
understanding regarding how certain factors are related to police use of force (Terrill &
Mastrofski, 2002). Prior to opining this sentiment, a single study (see Crawford & Burns, 1998;
reported mixed results) reviewed here included a measure attempting to account for the
dynamic nature of these events, but since then several studies have by including measures of
suspect resistance. The empirical evidence suggests that resistant suspects were more likely to
experience a forceful outcome compared to their compliant counterparts (McCluskey & Terrill,
2005; McCluskey et al., 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2004, 2007; Schuck, 2004; Terrill et al., 2003;
Terrill et al., 2008). For example, Terrill and Mastrofski (2002) reported suspects who
demonstrated passive, verbal, defensive, or active resistance were more likely to have force
used against them. The lone exception to this general finding is Lawton (2007) who reported
no effect for this factor.
The arrest of a suspect was not considered in early assessments of use of force (Riksheim
& Chermak, 1993; Sherman, 1980), but more contemporary studies have employed a measure
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 223
of arrest to determine if this factor influences the likelihood of an officer using force. The
empirical evidence is fairly consistent, suggesting that officers were, in fact, more likely to
employ force when an arrest was made (McCluskey & Terrill, 2005; McCluskey et al., 2005;
Paoline & Terrill, 2007; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002; Terrill et al., 2003). Paoline and Terrill
(2004) specified this relationship by reporting that both male and female officers were more
likely to use physical force when they arrested the suspect involved in the encounter; however,
male officers were less likely to employ verbal force when an arrest was initiated, whereas the
likelihood of a female officer using verbal force was not influenced.
Importantly, one significant limitation of these studies is the inability to determine
whether force was used before an arrest was initiated; thus, the temporal ordering component of
scientific research is not achieved. Moreover, some organizational policy dictates the use of
handcuffing once a suspect is arrested thus eliminating discretion and requiring officers to use
that level of force (see Terrill et al., 2003 footnote on page 1022). Finally, arrest is also
associated with other officer behaviors captured on the use of force continuum. For example,
verbal commands and pat-downs are actions officers engage in when affecting an arrest.
Presence of Other Officers/Citizens
Between 1980 and 1993, only one study examined the impact of other officers on the use
of force (Riksheim & Chermak, 1993). More recently, scholars have become increasingly
interested in how this factor might influence use of force situations. The empirical evidence, to
date, is mixed, as some studies found that force was more likely to occur as the number of
officers involved increases (Garner et al., 2002; Paoline & Terrill, 2007; and Terrill &
Mastrofski, 2002), others reported that force is negatively related to the presence of officers
(Lawton, 2007), and some suggested that there is no relationship (Engel et al., 2000;
McCluskey, et al., 2005).
Other studies have produced mixed results for the effect of this factor. For example,
Terrill et al. (2003) reported that the location of the encounter was influential, a positive
relationship in one location, but a null relationship in another jurisdiction. Paoline and Terrill
(2004) reported that the relationship depended on the operationalization of force as presence of
officers was positively related to physical force, but not to verbal force. Finally, Phillips and
Smith (2000) discovered a negative relationship only when more than three officers were
present (see also Terrill, 2005).
The presence of other citizens has also only recently become a focus of research, as only
two studies had considered this factor on police officer decision-making prior to 1993
(Riksheim & Chermak, 1993). The recent evidence is rather consistent suggesting that the
number of bystanders has no influence on an officer’s likelihood of using force (McCluskey et
al., 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2004, 2007; Schuck, 2004; Terrill, 2005; Terrill & Mastrofski,
2002; Terrill et al., 2003; Terrill et al., 2008). Engel et al. (2000), however, reported conflicting
results, suggesting that the police were more likely to use force against a suspect as the number
of bystanders increased. Finally, Crawford and Burns (1998) found that bystanders increased
224 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
the likelihood of using physical restraints but had no influence on the use of chemical agents,
nonlethal weapons, or firearms (see also Garner et al., 2002 and Phillips & Smith, 2000).
Conflict within the encounter is also a relatively new characteristic included in
assessments of force, as none of the studies reviewed by Sherman (1980) or Riksheim and
Chermak (1993) considered this factor. The collective empirical evidence unsurprisingly
suggests that officers were more likely to use force against a suspect if he/she was engaged in a
conflict with another citizen at the time of the encounter (McCluskey & Terrill, 2005;
McCluskey et al., 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2007; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002). Other studies
produced mixed results; for example, Terrill et al. (2003) concluded that this factor varied by
jurisdiction, and Paoline and Terrill (2004) reported its effect varied by the operationalization of
force (i.e., verbal vs. physical). Finally, Engel et al. (2000) reported that conflicts between
citizens did not influence an officer’s likelihood of using force.
Officer characteristics reflect the intrinsic uniqueness of the officer involved in the
encounter. Previous summaries considered race/ethnicity, gender, age, length of experience,
and education of officers (Riksheim & Chermak, 1993; Sherman, 1980). Only a handful of
early studies examined these factors, but by the time Riksheim and Chermak (1993) conducted
their summary, over twenty independent findings were reported for officer characteristics.
More recently, officer characteristics have received considerable attention in use of force
Early studies reported that officer race/ethnicity was not related to the likelihood or
appropriateness of police use of force in general, or the use of deadly force, specifically
(Friedrich, 1980; Geller & Karales, 1981). More recently, this finding has been confirmed by a
series of research studies (Lawton, 2007; McElvain & Kposowa, 2004; McCluskey et al., 2005;
McCluskey & Terrill, 2005; Morabito & Doerner, 1997; Paoline & Terrill, 2004, 2007; Terrill
& Mastrofski, 2002). For example, Crawford and Burns (1998) reported that officer
race/ethnicity did not influence the likelihood of an officer using a verbal command, physical
restraint, chemical spray, non-lethal weapon, or firearm.
While the majority of research indicates no consistent relationship between officer
race/ethnicity and use of force, a few recent studies have produced divergent results suggesting
Black and White officers differed in their use of force practices. For example, one of Sun and
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 225
Payne’s (2004) models found that Black officers were more likely than White officers to
respond coercively when asked to resolve interpersonal conflicts between citizens.
Interestingly, officer race/ethnicity was no longer statistically significant once interaction terms
and neighborhood level characteristics were introduced into the model. Similarly, Garner et al.
(2002) reported mixed results, as they discovered that Hispanic officers were more likely than
White officers to use force, while Black officers and those classified as “Other” were no more
or less likely to use force compared to their White counterparts. These relationships, however,
only pertained to the prevalence of force. When severity of force was their outcome measure,
officer race/ethnicity was not a significant predictor. Thus, officer race/ethnicity appears to have
no consistent effect on use of force by police.
Similarly, most studies indicate officer gender is not related to use of force by police.
Arguably the most thorough analysis of gender differences and use of force involved six
different models and two different analytic techniques (Paoline & Terrill, 2004). Results
indicated only one significant difference between male and female officers in their sample; male
officers were more likely to use higher levels of force against male suspects whereas suspect
gender was unrelated to the level of force female officers used. No other statistically significant
gender differences were reported in the likelihood or type of force used despite the fact that
male and female officers were influenced by other factors differentially. McCluskey and Terrill
(2005) found that after controlling for the number and type of complaints filed against officers,
officer gender was not related to use of force in their sample. These findings have been
supported by several other studies (Crawford & Burns, 1998; Kaminski et al., 2004; Lawton,
2007; McCluskey et al., 2005; Paoline & Terrill, 2007; Phillips & Smith, 2000; Sun and Payne,
2004; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002; Terrill et al., 2008).
Despite the fact that most studies find no significant difference in how often or the type
of force employed by male and female officers, some have produced results suggesting gender
differences in the amount of force male and female officers used or the likelihood that they
resorted to force. For example, Garner et al. (2002) found that male officers were more likely
to use force and employ more severe types of force than female officers. Similarly, McElvain
and Kposowa (2004) found that male officers were more likely to be investigated by internal
affairs for incidents involving higher levels of force than female officers. Finally, Kop and
Euwema (2001) found that male officers were more likely to resort to force than female officers
in their sample; however, they found no gender differences in officer attitudes toward use of
force (see also Morabito & Doerner, 1997). Thus, while not consistent in every study, the
overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that officer gender is not related to use of force.
226 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
Officer age has surprisingly received relatively little attention in empirical studies. One
possible explanation is that officer age and years of experience are highly correlated with one
another thus requiring only one of the two measures to be included in the analysis. Exceptions
to this pattern include Crawford and Burns’ (1998) finding that officer age was unrelated to an
officer’s propensity to use any of type of force analyzed. Conversely, Garner et al. (2002)
reported that older officers were less likely to use force and, when they did, they used less
severe types of force compared to younger officers. Moreover, McElvain and Kposowa (2004)
reported that older officers were less likely to have been investigated by internal affairs for use
of force incidents compared to younger officers. The cumulative evidence regarding the
relationship between officer age and use of force is inconclusive, as too few studies have
considered this factor in their analysis.
Officer’s level of experience has received a considerable amount of research attention
with mixed results. Evidence has accumulated suggesting a negative relationship between
officer experience and use of force: officers with more experience were less likely to use less
force (Paoline & Terrill, 2007; Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002). Kop and Euwema (2001) also
discovered that officers with more experience held less favorable attitudes toward the use of
force relative to their counterparts with fewer years of service and were less likely to use force.
Likewise, McElvain and Kposowa (2004) found that officers with more years of experience
were less likely to have been investigated by internal affairs for a use of force incident.
Conversely, several other studies reported that officer experience had no influence on use
of force decisions. For example, Sun and Payne (2004) found that officers with more years of
experience were no more or less likely to use force than those with fewer years of service. This
finding was also reported in several other studies (Lawton, 2007; McCluskey et al., 2005;
McCluskey & Terrill, 2005; Terrill et al., 2008).
Finally, further complicating matters, officer experience also produced mixed results in
the same study depending on how use of force was operationalized. For example, Crawford
and Burns (1998) found that officers with more years of experience were less likely to use a
restraining hold and a firearm than officers with fewer years of experience, but were no more or
less likely to use a verbal command, chemical spray, or nonlethal weapon. Other studies found
that officer experience produced mixed results as well (Kaminski et al., 2004; Morabito &
Doerner, 1997; Paoline & Terrill, 2004). The relationship between use of force and officer
experience is unclear and often contingent on the data examined and the operationalization of
the dependent variable.
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 227
One of the recommendations offered by the President’s Commission on Law
Enforcement and Administration of Justice was that police agencies seek to hire college-
educated personnel. Seemingly, those achieving a higher level of educational attainment
possess better decision-making skills and will make better police officers (Worden, 1990). This
assumption has received relatively little attention and the empirical evidence produced by the
few studies that have examined this factor was mixed. A single study reported here found that
an officer’s level of education did not influence the likelihood that he or she used force (Sun &
Payne, 2004), while others have found a negative relationship between force and an officer’s
level of education (Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002). For example, Paoline and Terrill (2007)
reported that officers with a college degree were less likely to use verbal and physical force
compared to their colleagues with only a high school degree. Similarly, officers with some
college were less likely to engage in verbal force compared to their less educated counterparts
but no more or less likely to use physical force. Other studies have reported mixed results
including Morabito and Doerner (1997) who reported that officers with a Bachelor’s degree
were no more or less likely to use OC spray prior to policy changes but were more likely to
deploy this form of nonlethal force after departmental policy changes. Similar mixed results
pertaining to the effects of officer education on the likelihood of using force were reported by
Paoline and Terrill (2004).
Based on the empirical evidence to date, it appears that few suspect and encounter
characteristics are highly influential in determining use of force by police. For example, male
suspects, those who were intoxicated, offered resistance, or arrested during their encounter with
police were much more likely to experience police force. A word of caution is warranted, as the
overall consistency of these factors should be tempered with the caveat that several studies also
reported mixed findings or no relationship for these factors as well. Despite this, the general
trend for these factors suggests force is more likely occur when these characteristics are present.
The overwhelming majority of variables used throughout the literature seem to have a mixed
relationship (i.e., suspect race/ethnicity, suspect gender, suspect age, weapon, etc.) or appear to
be poor predictors (i.e., other citizens present, officer race, officer gender, etc.) of use of force
by police. Explaining the relative inconsistency of variables across studies is not an easy task,
but a necessary one if the field of police studies wishes to further its understanding of the nature
and extent of this phenomenon. We offer some plausible explanations that might put the
inconsistent findings reported here in context.
First, while this body of research has improved the state of knowledge regarding
correlates of force, as with all knowledge regarding police behavior, methodological issues
continue to be relevant. Despite the continuity in definition offered by Garner et al. (1995),
there is an on-going, pervasive problem with scholars failing to provide a consistent
228 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
operationalization and measurement of force throughout the literature. This deficiency leads to
an assortment of police behaviors (e.g., verbal, physical, violent, and nonviolent ones) being
measured as force and might account for why there is little consistency in terms of the reported
effects of exogenous variables across studies. Further, this inconsistency raises concerns about
how research findings should be interpreted. For example, it is unclear whether extant findings
are related to nonviolent, violent, or both types of force. As a result, not only are research
results inconsistent across studies, but also there is no way to ensure the results are explaining
the same phenomenon.
Even among those studies that provided definitions of force, the degree of specificity
varies considerably. For example, Terrill and Reisig (2003: 299) defined force as “… acts that
threaten or inflict physical harm on suspects”, whereas Williams and Westall (2003: 471)
defined it as “any act or behavior that compelled a person into submission”. Unlike Terrill and
Reisig’s (2003) definition, Williams and Westall’s does not clearly convey the types of police
officer behavior that constitute force and leaves the meaning of “submission” ambiguous. Such
inconsistencies might account for disparate findings across studies. Future research needs to
address the operationalization of force in an effort to generate consensus throughout the
A second concern centers on possible omitted variable biases. The failure to consistently
include a measure of crime seriousness might account for some of the disparate findings
reported here. Notwithstanding a few inquiries (Alpert et al., 2004; Engel et al., 2000; Lawton,
2007), use of force studies have generally been silent on the importance of this factor.
Considering this is one of the most robust predictors of criminal justice decision-making
(Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1988) and studies have consistently shown that those who commit
more serious offenses are more likely to be arrested (Brown & Frank, 2006; Novak & Engel,
2005), charged (Meithe, 1987), receive longer sentences (Koons-Witt, 2002; Steffensmeier,
Ulmer, & Kramer, 1998), and victims and witnesses to crimes are more likely to notify the
police when they perceive a serious crime has been committed (Felson, Messner, & Hoskin,
1999), it is crucial to further explore the importance of this factor in force encounters.
Similarly, only one study reviewed here made an attempt to determine whether the officer
involved in the encounter had specific preexisting knowledge regarding the suspect that might
heighten his/her sense of urgency and result in a greater likelihood of resorting to force. Garner
et al. (2002) included measures that tapped into whether the suspect was known to be violent,
possess a weapon, and a member of a gang. Given the relative consistency of prior criminal
record in other areas of criminal justice research, it seems logical for scholars focusing on
police use of force to make an attempt to include such measures in the future.
The findings from this study were not reported here, as multivariate analysis was not conducted. However, their
operationalization of force exemplifies the concern being articulated. Of the 41 studies conducted between 1995 and 2008
that were located as a part of this research only twelve provided a proper operational definition of force. The remaining
studies merely identified behaviors captured in their measure or failed to address operationalization all together.
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 229
The third concern deals with recent analytic improvements (i.e., hierarchical modeling)
that may require a re-assessment of findings generated using traditional unilevel, multivariate
models. Assessing police-citizen encounters by considering suspect, encounter, and officer
factors requires consideration of the inherent nested nature of the data. Specifically, data
collected on police-citizen encounters correspond to multiple levels of aggregation: suspect and
encounter level factors correspond to one level of aggregation (level-1), while officer
characteristics correspond to a higher level of aggregation (level-2). This logic also applies to
higher other factors such as neighborhood or organizational factors (level-3). Ideally, suspect
and encounter characteristics should be modeled at a different level of aggregation from officer
characteristics in order to assess their independent impact on outcomes (i.e., use of force)
(Terrill & Mastrofski, 2002).
Failing to acknowledge this issue violates the assumption that each outcome is
independently influenced by the predictors in the model (Hanushek & Jackson, 1977). This
likely leads to error terms at level-1 being correlated across officers at level-2 and may lead to
invalid parameter estimates (Luke, 2004). Moreover, multicollinearity between level-1 and
level-2 units and a biased F-test may result from a failure to properly model nested data
(Wooldredge, Griffin, & Pratt, 2001). Studies that do not acknowledge the hierarchical nature
of the police-citizen encounters might report biased estimates regarding the correlates of police
use of force (as well as other decisions) and report statistical artifacts rather than actual
To date, the accepted method of studying use of force has been to analyze data using
pooled variance analytical techniques for categorical and limited dependent variables (i.e.,
ordered probit and multinomial logit models). The only exceptions to date are Lawton (2007),
McCluskey and Terrill (2005), and Terrill and Reisig (2003), who used hierarchical linear
modeling (HLM or HGLM) techniques to estimate the effects of the endogenous variables on
police use of force. Two of these studies, however, modeled encounter level factors at level-1
and community/contextual level factors at level-2 (i.e., violent crime rate, heterogeneity
measures, concentrated disadvantage, homicide rate, etc.), thus failing to address the nested
nature of the data (i.e., suspect and encounter factors nested within officers). In an attempt to
overcome this issue, McCluskey and Terrill (2005) modeled encounter level factors at level-1
and officer characteristics at level-2 to assess the independent effects of the variables operating
at the different levels while controlling for the potential correlated error. Future research should
follow their lead and explore the use of HGLM if the discipline of police studies wishes to
broaden its understanding of policing outcomes in general, and use of force, specifically.
In addition to methodological issues, a consistent, yet underdeveloped, theme in policing
research is the impact of organizational and contextual characteristics on encounter outcomes.
While scholars have been attracted to these factors for some time, few include meaningful
measures in their analysis. Sherman (1980) defined contextual characteristics as attributes of
the community that influence how police carry out their role. His review identified several
community level factors that might affect police officer decision-making, such as the area’s
political climate, economic status, and basic demographic characteristics. However, he
230 Klahm & Tillyer —Understanding Police Use of Force (2010)
discovered that few of these measures were employed in use of force studies. By the time
Riksheim and Chermak (1993) replicated his review, scholars had increasingly estimated the
effects of community level factors in use of force research, but still only a total of fourteen
findings were reported. Aside from studies that merely included a jurisdictional measure,
community level factors were incorporated in only four studies, accounting for nine different
findings (see Lawton, 2007; McCluskey et al., 2005; Sun & Payne, 2004; and Terrill & Reisig,
Similarly, organizational factors have long been discussed by scholars sanctimoniously,
but not given their due attention. Organizational characteristics are factors intrinsic to the
agency, not the individual, but may influence officer decision-making. Sherman’s (1980)
review found a total of five findings reported in police use of literature prior to 1980 and, by
1993, the number of findings reported throughout the literature had increased to thirteen
(Riksheim & Chermak, 1993). Organizational characteristics have received scant attention in
the more recent use of force research, as only two studies reported here included true measures
of such factors (Alpert & MacDonald, 2001; Terrill et al., 2003). Several studies compared
results across departments or jurisdictions, but without providing measures that tap
organizational differences, the findings are difficult to interpret (Sherman, 1980). That is,
merely identifying that outcomes vary across agencies does not speak to any of the
characteristics of those agencies, which might explain why outcomes vary.
As advancements in analytical techniques continue to allow for more sophisticated
modeling of data, it would be expected that contextual and organizational factors experience a
“rebirth” throughout the literature. Considering we can assess the independent influences of
characteristics operating at different levels (i.e., encounter, officer, organizational, and
neighborhood context), this seems like an intuitive avenue for future research. These new and
improved methods might allow for the testing of complex theoretical frameworks such as
Klinger’s (1997) ecological perspective, which suggests police behavior is based on a
constellation of factors ranging from encounter characteristics and personal experiences to
community and work contexts.
IMPORTANCE OF UNDERSTANDING POLICE USE OF FORCE
Understanding the nature and extent of use of force by police is extremely important for a
variety of reasons. The phrase ‘police use of force’ has a negative connotation that implies
cruel, harsh, or brutal treatment, and there is evidence suggesting that these incidents erode
community attitudes toward and trust in police (Thompson & Lee, 2004). Thus, use of force
incidents often serve to exacerbate the historically contentious relations between the police and
certain segments of society. In particular, African American communities have a long-standing
tense relationship with the police and some suggest that Hispanic communities are also at odds
with police (Huang & Vaughn, 1996; Walker, 1997).
The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (2) 231
In addition to the deleterious effects on police-community relations, police use of force
incidents can be very costly for police organizations in terms of civil litigation payouts and
subsequent resource expenditures. The very nature of their work makes police organizations
susceptible to civil suits, especially claims of excessive use of force (Barrineau, 1994).
Although estimating the total amount of money paid out annually for use of force claims is a
difficult endeavor due to a lack of reliable data (del Carmen, 1993), a substantial number of law
suits are filed against police each year claiming excessive use of force (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993).
Of equal concern is recent evidence suggesting that the number of suits filed against police
organizations has been increasing since the 1980’s (see Kappeler & Kappeler, 1992 and
Kappeler, Kappeler, & del Carmen, 1993).
Finally, organizational policy, in theory, should be predicated on empirical research. As
such, it is imperative that we fully understand the nature and extent of police use of force as
well as the factors related to its use. Only then can training protocols be tailored to its
appropriate use and policy formulated to instruct officers when they can and should use force.
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Charles F. Klahm is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at St.
Joseph’s College, New York. His research interests include understanding police behavior,
especially their use of force, the use of evolving technology in policing, as well as how
technology influences crime prevention initiatives.
Rob Tillyer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio in the
Department of Criminal Justice. His research interests include the use of discretion within the
criminal justice system, police officer decision-making, victimization, crime prevention, and
criminological theories of crime. Recent journal articles have appeared in Justice Quarterly,
Journal of Criminal Justice and Policing.