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Factors that Affect the Decision of a Police to Stop, Search, use Force, or Arrest
The decision of a police officer to stop, search, use force, or arrest is influenced by certain factors. The contexts and controversy surrounding the decision of police officers to stop, search, use force, or arrest has attracted a myriad of studies by psychologists and sociologists. According to Johnson, Cesario, and Pleskac (2018), researchers in various fields, for instance, sociology and criminal justice have conducted studies to determine how police officers make decisions, for example, to shoot, by using police reports, observational methods, and public data sets. Kahn, Steele, McMahon, and Stewart (2017) further assert that the application of force by police officers is usually studied using police use-of-force reports which may include; check-box outcomes that detail the level of force employed as well as narrative reports that are provided by police officers detailing what occurred that caused the application of force by the police officer. The results of the studies have revealed that factors such as police training and experience (Bennell, Jones & Corey, 2007), racial bias and prejudice among police officers and suspect behavior (Kahn, Steele, McMahon, & Stewart, 2017), negative stereotyping of minority communities, for instance, Blacks (Wilson, Hugenberg & Rule, 2017; Trinkner, Kerrison & Goff, 2019), stereotype threat among police officers (Trinkner, Kerrison & Goff, 2019), suspect’s racial affiliation (Kahn & McMahon, 2015), presence of prior information (Johnson, Cesario, & Pleskac, 2018), and objective strains (Agnew, 2001) among other factors influence the decision of a police officer to stop, search, use force, or arrest. In this regard therefore, this paper aims to synthesize these factors by examining what scientific evidence demonstrates regarding these factors. The information that will be provided by the paper regarding the factors that influence police decisions will have a significant positive impact helping to interested individuals to understand why certain groups of individuals are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, or why police officers use more force on certain groups of individuals as opposed to others.
The impact of training and experience on a police officer’s decision to stop, search, use force, or arrest has been examined by sociologists and psychologists in numerous studies. For instance, a study carried out by Johnson, Cesario, and Pleskac (2018) revealed that officers with more training and experience received fewer complaints and they could resolve conflicts as well as complaints with less force. In respect to the aspect of police training and experience, Johnson, Cesario, and Pleskac (2018) argue that whereas the impact of police training and experience on the decision to use force is understudied, the few studies that have examined these aspects have confirmed that police training and experience played a crucial role in improving outcomes related to use of force by the police officers. Based on this information, it can be argued that police officers with higher training and experience are likely to employ moral authority in their decision to stop, search, use force, or arrest individuals who are suspected to have engaged in criminal acts or individuals apprehended in criminal acts. On the aspect of police training, it is of paramount importance to point out that the use of force has been a culture in police training programs. Bennell, Jones, and Corey (2007) cite the use of force to have been an integral element of police training programs for over a long period of time. In respect to this aspect, it can be construed that the fact that use of force has been a cultural aspect in police training programs, some police officers perceive the use of force as a normal practice while dealing with suspected criminals.
Racial bias and prejudice is another factor that has been cited in a myriad of studies as a causal factor which influences the decision of a police officer to stop, search, use force, or even arrest suspected criminals. In regard to the aspect of racial bias among police officers, Kahn and McMahon (2015) state that, whereas scientific research has not pinpointed that contributory role of police officers’ racial bias in specific shooting incidence, individuals’ knowledge of the multifaceted, as well as dynamic issue of police racial bias, can be enhanced through examining the incidences as a recurrence of wide societal aspect. Racial bias among police officers has been witnessed on several occasions and more particularly when police officers are dealing with suspect criminals belonging to minority communities. According to Johnson, Cesario, and Pleskac (2018), in November 2014, a police officer responded to information about a Black male who was sitting on the swings pointing a gun at people and upon arriving at the scene, the police officer shot the man dead immediately. After the incidence, it was discovered that man was holding an airsoft pistol. Johnson, Cesario, and Pleskac (2018) argue that this particular incidence demonstrates bias in the use of lethal force against black people. A study conducted by Kahn, Steele, McMahon, and Stewart (2017) revealed that racial minority particularly black males often encounter disproportionate contact with police officers. The disproportionate police contacts include traffic stops and police stops (Kahn, Steele, McMahon, & Stewart, 2017). In this regard therefore, based on the findings of these studies, police racial bias can be said to have a significant influence on the decision of a police officer to stop, search, use force, or arrest suspect criminals.
Suspect behavior has also been mentioned in some studies as a factor that influences the decision of the police to stop, search, use force, or arrest a suspect. According to Kahn, Steele, McMahon, and Stewart (2017), every act of suspect resistance is met with proportionate actions from police officers. Kahn, Steele, McMahon, and Stewart (2017) further argue that an increase in suspect resistance often attracts increased corresponding police force. Being cognizant of the fact that police interactions with suspect may influence the decision of the police, Kahn, Steele, McMahon, and Stewart (2017) argue that research on police-suspect interactions could provide insightful information about how and why police officers apply force. Suspect behavior is therefore an outcome of the research that helps individuals in understanding reasons why police use force on suspects.
Suspect’s race has also been cited in myriad empirical studies as a causal factor that influences the decision of a police officer to stop, search, use force, or arrest. Kahn and McMahon (2015) emphasize the aspect of suspect’s race by stating that there exists empirical evidence that links suspects’ race to police behavior. A study conducted by Kahn, Steele, McMahon, and Stewart (2017) reveals that the suspect race plays an integral role in influencing the application of force by police officers. Kahn, Steele, McMahon, and Stewart (2017) further argue that suspect race has been found to affect diverse outcomes in policing and by extension the entire criminal justice systems thereby impacting significantly on suspect interaction with police, criminal sentencing, and arrest rates. In regard to the issue of suspect race, studies have shown that Blacks are more likely to be stopped, searched, used force on, and arrested by the police. A study conducted by Wilson, Hugenberg, and Rule (2017) revealed that Blacks stand higher chances of being mistakenly shot by the police in a virtual crime scenario while in the possession of an innocent weapon, for instance, a soda can. Additionally, the study by Wilson, Hugenberg, and Rule (2017) further showed that Black men are more likely to be seen as aggressive or threatening compared to the Whites men. According to Correll, Park, Judd, Wittenbrink, Sadler, and Keesee (2007), “Investigators have consistently found evidence that police use greater force, including lethal force, with minority suspects than with White suspects.” (pp. 1006). Additionally, Park, Judd, Wittenbrink, Sadler, and Keesee (2007) further argue that Data from the Department of Justice (2001) has shown that Black suspects are roughly five times more likely to die at the hands of the police as compared to White suspects. These revelations explain why there has been an increase in not only national but also international attention focused on cases of white police officers shooting unarmed Black men (Johnson & Lecci, 2019). In this regard therefore, facts presented in these studies confirm the suspect’s race significantly influences the decision of a police to stop, search, use force and arrest suspected criminals.
The impact of prior information on the decision of a police to stop, search, use force, or even arrest suspected criminals has also been investigated by multiple studies. A lot of studies have shown that the presence of prior information has a significant impact on influencing a police officer’s decision. For instance, a study conducted by Johnson, Cesario, and Pleskac (2018) confirmed that the presence of prior information influences a police officer’s decision to shoot or arrest. It has been discovered that information on weapon information would coerce a police officer to use lethal force, for instance, shooting a suspected criminal. The case of a police officer who shot a black man in November 2014 by relying on information from the public that the black was in possession of a gun (Johnson, Cesario, and Pleskac, 2018) is a perfect example of how the presence of prior information can impact a police officer’s decision to use lethal force independent of race.
The manner in which a police officer interacts with members of the community has also been shown to influence the decision of the police officer. Wolfe and Nix (2016) cite that despite that the Ferguson Effect on Crime has remained an open question, there is a possibility of the influence of the Ferguson Effect on various elements of police jobs such as the willingness of a police officer to interact with the community. By interacting with the community, police officers are better placed to understand objective which according to Agnew (2001) refers to events and conditions that are disliked by a greater portion of members of a particular group. Interaction with the community therefore has a significant influence on the decision of a police to stop, search, use force, or even arrest individuals of the community the police officer interacts with.
Technology is also believed to influence a police officer’s decision more particularly in the use of force and arresting of suspects. Nowadays, people can take videos or even record audios of interactions or confrontations between police officers and suspects. In regard to videos of police using lethal force, Culhane, Boman, John, and Schweitzer (2016) state that video-evidence produce the highest evidence regarding the perception of citizens that police officers engaged in unjustified shooting. Granot, Balcetis, Feigenson, and Tyler (2018) on the other hand state that people over-believe video evidence and have the perceptions that their interpretations of the videos are not only more accurate but also complete. McCamman and Culhane (2017) emphasize this aspect by arguing that individuals who are exposed to shooting video are more likely to interpret the shooting as unjustified as opposed to individuals who learn about the shooting via audio or text. In other instances, police body-worn cameras also provide video evidence of interactions between police officers and suspects. Young and Ready (2015) address this aspect by arguing that on-officer body cameras provide objective accounts of the interactions between the public and police officers. Video evidence from on-officer body cameras is viewed by police leadership as a technological avenue to resolve complaints raised by citizens (Young & Ready, 2015). In this regard therefore, being cognizant of the existence of video evidence from public cameras as well as cameras mounted on them, police officers might be compelled to consider how they handle suspects during arrest or the force they use on the suspects. Based on this information, it is evident that technology has a significant influence on the decision of a police officer to stop, search, use force, and arrest suspected criminals.
Stereotype threat has also been widely examined by various studies to determine how it influences the decision of a police officer to stop, search, use force, or even arrest criminal suspects. Stereotype threat arises when a person is concerned that their behavior confirms negative stereotypes of members of their community (Trinkner, Kerrison, & Goff, 2019). According to Trinkner, Kerrison, and Goff (2019), multiple studies that have examined the effects of stereotype threat on police officers’ behavior show that police officers who are concerned about appearing as racist are more likely to act in a manner that confirms the stereotype. A study on police officers from an urban police department revealed a positive correlation between a stereotype threat and the use of force against Blacks (Trinkner, Kerrison, & Goff, 2019). It is primarily important to mention that the experience of stereotype threat has a significant impact on undermining a police officer’s confidence in controlling situations in a non-coercive manner (Trinkner, Kerrison, & Goff, 2019). Based on the revelations of this study, it is indisputable that stereotype threat has a significant impact on influencing a police officer’s decision to stop, search, use force, and arrest stereotyped individuals in a community.
Finally, some studies have also examined the aspect of task complexity to determine if it influences a police officer’s decision. A study carried out by Correll, Park, Judd, Wittenbrink, Sadler, and Keesee (2007) has shown that task complexity has a tremendous impact for officers engaging in encounters that are believed to be potentially hostile. Concerning the aspect of task complexity, Correll, Park, Judd, Wittenbrink, Sadler, and Keesee (2007) argue that when a police is faced by a series of confusing and irrelevant factors such as noise, darkness, bystanders, and movement, the officer is tasked with determining the presence of relatively conspicuous and small weapon. Task complexity might most likely give threaten fundamental aspects of police job, for instance, asymmetrical power difference which according to Kahn, Steele, McMahon, and Stewart (2017) favors the police officer. As described by the deference exchange theory, in instances when deference is not achieved, police officers may opt to use force with an objective of reestablishing the power dynamic of the relationship (Kahn, Steele, McMahon, & Stewart, 2017). In this regard therefore, task complexity creates unique aspects that influence police officers’ decision to stop, search, use force, and arrest suspects in a crime scenario.
In conclusion, the paper has demonstrated how various factors influence police officers’ decision to stop, search, use force, or arrest when dealing with suspects. The factors discussed in the paper include; police training and experience, racial bias and prejudice among police officers, suspect behavior, suspect’s race, presence of prior information, the interaction of a police officer and public, technology, stereotype threat, and task complexity. The information presented in this paper can be useful to students pursuing criminal-related studies, law enforcement agencies, and researchers in helping them to understand why police officers may behave in a particular manner when dealing with criminal suspects.
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