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date: 23 April 2018

Police Violence

Summary and Keywords

The ability of the police to assert social control and reproduce social order depends, crucially, on the capacity to use force to achieve these ends—whether when restraining someone attempting to self-harm or shooting dead an armed terrorist. But what do we know about police use of force in the United States and England and Wales? Why does unjustified police use of force occur? And why do citizens have different views on the acceptability and unacceptability of various forms of police violence?

Keywords: police, violence, justification, legitimacy, normativity, social identity

Police Violence and Use of Force: What Do We Know?

The role and authority of the police is intimately linked to the use of force, with definitions and theories of police often revolving around the idea that this is the arm of the state “authorized to use physical force to maintain order and safety” (Bayley, 1983, p. 1,120; Bittner, 1990)—although more expansive understandings have recently taken center stage (which, for example, recognize that not all police are employed by the state, see Brodeur, 2010). The ability of the police to assert and reproduce order, deal with crime, and protect the populations they serve depends, crucially, on the capacity to use force to achieve these ends—whether when restraining someone attempting to self-harm or shooting dead an armed terrorist.

The police capacity for force is not, therefore, “bad.” Force is both necessary and constructive to effective policing. As Egon Bittner (2005, p. 132) famously argues, the police operate under a catchall mandate that extends beyond the archetypical role of fighting crime, and to the wide and ambiguous remit of “things-which-ought-not-to-be-happening-and-about-which-somebody-ought-to-do-something.” Remediation of “things awry” need not always be violent or aggressive—Bittner argues this very point, emphasizing the police faculty for everything from custodian of the mentally ill, to the rescuing of cats from trees. And, police in developed democracies only rarely use force (Brodeur, 2010). And yet, central to the role of the police is the power to “move along” individuals and groups, stop and search suspicious persons, and intervene in riots and fights. While perceptions of fairness are usually found to be the key predictors of trust and legitimacy, few doubt that people also want police to be effective in dealing with crime and disorder, with the ability to use force being a central part of their contribution toward these ends. The recognized (albeit often unexercised) power to forcefully attend to diverse matters and inflict sanctioned violence, even death, is part and parcel both of effective policing and public support for it. As Diarmaid Harkin (2015, p. 48) contends, “[while] at a certain level of unfairness and brutality, legitimacy would diminish . . . it is also true that not enough aggression or violence . . . from police would also bring their legitimacy and social approval into question.” That is to say, as Harkin puts it, it is possible that police “gain legitimacy from use-of-force, violence, and inflicting types of injury,” so long as officers act in normatively appropriate ways.

At first blush, this view may seem—quite rightly—controversial and counterintuitive to basic commonsense judgments regarding what constitutes “good” policing. Indeed, many procedural justice theorists have argued this point, noting that fair treatment, appropriate conduct, and respect are important determinants of police legitimacy (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Jackson et al., 2012; Huq, Jackson, & Trinkner, 2017). On this account, violent or aggressive activity would incur a “cost,” impeding the ability to carry out effective or efficient police work (Tyler, 2006; Tyler, Jackson, & Mentovich, 2015), and while ample empirical work supports this view, it is nevertheless also true that force (within certain limits) may actually be constitutive of police legitimacy and public support (Harkin, 2015; Bradford & Jackson, 2016). That is, there is another side to public approval and support for police, whereby the police capacity for and use of force is one of the very foundations by which people evaluate the police as legitimate.

This entry explores this apparent conundrum. It is necessary, first, to draw a distinction between “use of force” and “violence,” with the latter considered to be a special case of the former. The primary focus here is on instances that go beyond the justified use of force to constitute violence, that is, the unjustified use of physical force (Alpert & Dunham, 2004; cf. Alpert, MacDonald, & Dunham, 2005). While what is considered “police violence” has varied across time, place, jurisdiction—and as recent scholarship has shown, by political ideology (Gerber & Jackson, 2017), racial/ethnic category (Johnson & Kuhns, 2009), and group identity (Gerber et al., in press)—this chapter uses a quite specific, legal definition: namely, that police violence is the use of excessive and/or unnecessary physical force when dealing with civilians. “Excessive” in this context means instances of force that are disproportionate to that which would be necessary to handle a given situation (Black’s legal dictionary, 1995). The scope of this definition is, of course, limited—police violence can and does manifest in a myriad of nonphysical forms, from verbal abuse, to psychological intimidation, disproportionate suspicion and profiling, to more subtle (and likely frequent) types of insinuation. And what is deemed “necessary” has long been fraught and subject to contentious debate, particularly as police use of force has a disproportionate impact on certain social groups. But for the sake of argument, and in the light of some practical considerations (particularly the availability of official statistics), this entry is limited to the police use of force and violence in two jurisdictions: namely, the United States and England and Wales.

The entry begins with a brief historical overview of police use of force and violence in the United States and England and Wales, starting with the 1960s up to the present day. It then details some of the major theories in the current literature that account for why police violence, specifically, occurs. There follows an account of some of the social-psychological factors explaining the public acceptance of police violence, specifically focusing on the role that legitimacy and social identity may play in shaping public support for the police use of force, generally, and violence, in particular. The chapter concludes with evidence suggesting that police violence is in many ways more subjective than is often considered, and is interpreted or “read” through a variety of social and psychological lenses.

Brief Historical Overview of Police Violence

Claims of violence, corruption, and misconduct came almost at the very founding of modern policing in the United States and the United Kingdom. While in the United Kingdom, at least, there has always been significant “myth-making” around the idea of unarmed, non-violent police—built first during the foundation of the Metropolitan Police Service in 1829 (not least to provide a contrast to what was perceived to be militaristic continental styles of policing), and finding fruition in the nostalgic postwar heyday of the “British bobby” and its associated mythology of imagined cohesion and community (Loader & Mulcahy, 2003)—policing in both countries has been hallmarked by a history of violence, hinging on race and class, which reached a zenith in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. A great many of these incidents emerged as a reaction to the race riots that followed the American civil rights movement and mass postwar migration to the United Kingdom, with graphic depictions of young, frequently black, protestors being pummeled with fire hoses, batons, dogs, and riot shields became emblematic symbols of the cultural revolution taking place. In the United States, a trope of heavily, often disproportionally, armed and armored police positioned against young unarmed protestors is indelibly associated with policing of the 1960s. But neither racial tension nor riots were requisite ingredients for police violence, as the clashes between police and the mods and rockers in British seaside towns in the 1960s attest, as too do the clashes between police and striking miners in the mid-1980s (for a more thorough account see Reiner, 2000; Cohen, 2002).

These violent incidents served as seminal trigger points which catalyzed concerted efforts in both countries toward police reform (e.g., the 1967 Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice). While enumerating the entirety of reform efforts following this period is better left to a dedicated historical account, we instead highlight the discernable cultural sensibility which emerged in reaction to this police violence—frequently one of skepticism and scrutiny, disapproval and distrust. Robert Reiner (2000, pp. 39–114), for example, documents the historical decline of public faith in the police following this period, though importantly he does not attribute the institution’s “desacralization” (Loader & Mulcahy, 2003) entirely to violent police conduct. Procedural justice theorists, similarly, have empirically modeled this deterioration of social standing, public trust, and confidence as a function of the corrosive impact of behavior perceived to be inappropriate, disproportionate, and discriminant (Tyler & Jackson, 2014).

Notwithstanding the reforms of the 1970s and 1980s, or continued efforts thereafter, police violence has continued to plague agencies in both countries, sparking subsequent public backlash, especially as it pertains, again, to matters of race. For example, public calls for reform intensified in the 1990s, reignited in part by the videotaped police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, the police mishandling of the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence in southeast London (and the subsequent Macpherson Report charge of “institutional racism”), and more recently, following the 2011 police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London, and the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to name but a few cases. In both instances, there was immediate and vehement public outcry, including a five-day period of mass rioting in London and other English cities in August 2011 (only some of which, though, can be attributed to the killing of Duggan), and nationwide protests across the United States as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

While this is but a cursory gloss over more than 60 years of major historical and cultural change, we point to these events and the reactions they elicited not only to highlight important historical flashpoints in police-public relations, but also to underscore the apparently negative impact that police violence appears to have had, historically, on public attitudes toward the police.

Police Violence and Use of Force: What Do We Know?

Instances of the use of deadly force by police loom large in popular and media discourse, and are often used as a barometer of violence (despite the fact that many such incidents are justified by events and cannot be construed as “excessive”). On many accounts, the recent trend has been upwards, certainly in the United States. Yet, despite the recent high-profile police killings of teenagers Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, to name but a few (as well as the intense media attention and public outcry these events have attracted), police violence may not in fact be on the rise in the United States or in the United Kingdom (McLaughlin, 2015; IPCC, 2016; “Why Cops Shoot,” 2017; Kielty, 2017). Indeed, according to the UK-based Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and data collected from the Tampa Bay Times (“Why Cops Shoot,” 2017), deadly shootings by police officers seem to have remained fairly consistent, even slightly declining, over the last decade.

It is, by definition, hard to count instances of police violence as we have defined it. This is, often, an activity well hidden from public view. Indeed, enumeration of the wider category of the use of force has proven difficult enough, particularly in the United States, where the picture is very far from clear and especially so for nonlethal forms of force and violence. In the United States, no official national statistics on police shootings are recorded, despite the requirement of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to “[maintain] data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” (H.R. 3355, Sec. 210402). Rather, a patchwork of municipal, state, and independently-collected data (increasingly, individuals with mobile phone recordings) is piecemealed together by nongovernmental organizations, media outlets (e.g., coverage by the The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers), and independent researchers. The Guardian series “The Counted” estimates that 1,092 individuals in the United States were killed by police in 2016 and 1,146 in 2015, though this number fluctuates drastically from state to state, with Delaware, for example, reporting one death in 2015 and California 160 (“The Counted,” 2015). There is also significant variation by race. For example, investigations by the Tampa Bay Times (“Why Cops Shoot,” 2017) show that in Florida about 40% of victims of police shootings are black, despite making up close to 17% of the population (United States Census Bureau, 2016).

The picture is less nebulous in the United Kingdom. According to the IPCC, the total number of deaths during or after police contact in England and Wales (i.e., those deaths related to road traffic fatalities, fatal shootings, suicides following police custody, or other deaths following police contact) was 102 between 2015 and 2016. Though this was considerably higher than the preceding 11 years in which data was collected, only three of these deaths resulted from a police shooting. To put this discrepancy in starker contrast, according to The Guardian series “The Counted,” there have been 55 reported fatal police shootings in England and Wales in the last 24 years, while in the United States there were 59 fatal police shootings in the first 24 days of 2015 alone. While much of this difference can likely be accounted for by (a) the fact that UK police officers are not routinely armed and (b) the wider “gun cultures” of the two societies—as well of course as taking no account of other forms of police force/violence—it seems nonetheless uncontroversial to claim that police in England and Wales are significantly less forceful, and less violent, than their US counterparts.

UK authorities are also more assiduous in collecting wider data on instances of police use of force. Notably, the Home Office reports on police use of firearms and Tasers (although the data in relation to the latter, in particular, are less than perfect). Although there were 15,705 police firearm operations in England and Wales in the year ending March 2017 (7% more than in the previous year), there were only ten incidents where weapons were actually discharged (in the previous year there were 7; Home Office, 2017a). The most recent release reports that there were 11,294 uses of Tasers by police in England and Wales in 2016, an increase of 9% on the previous year (Home Office, 2017b). Most of these “uses” did not, however, involve discharging the device, which occurred in only 1,910 incidents. To put these figures in perspective, in the year ending March 2016 there were 896,209 arrests in England and Wales (Home Office, 2017c).

Less well recorded, however, have been instances of force that do not involve lethal or “less than lethal” weapons, but which relate more to the hurly-burly of everyday policing and recourse to batons, irritant sprays, restraint techniques, and so on. This is beginning to change, and the National Police Chiefs Council introduced in 2016 a national standard for the reporting of police use of force. At the time of writing, some forces had already begun to release data: the London Metropolitan Police, for example, reported that from April to June 2017 there were 3,174 incidents of “non-compliant” handcuffing; 1,766 incidents of “ground restraint”; Tasers were used in 1,102 incidents; CS spray in 68; and firearms were aimed 281 times and discharged twice (MPS, 2017a). Again, for perspective, there were 31,370 stop and searches over the same period (MPS, 2017b), and something in the region of 50,000 arrests (quarterly breakdowns of arrests in London are not readily available; the annual figure for 2015 through 2016 was 191,970; Home Office, 2017c).

Taken together, the UK data would seem to support Brodeur’s (2010) contention that police only very rarely actually use force (what is more important, in all likelihood, is the capacity to use force—once a gun has been drawn and aimed, it is only very rarely necessary to fire it). Alpert and colleagues (2005), for example, have demonstrated that merely taking hold of a holstered weapon was sufficient to quell resistance to police. Set against these official figures, however, must be recognition of the extent to which much use of force, and particularly violence, likely goes unrecorded in official statistics. Data here are, unsurprisingly, scant, in part due to the very lack of official recording, but also stemming in part from definitional issues; police violence, even within the confines of our quite limited definition of unjustified physical use of force, is often just as much a feature of perception—shaped by insinuation, prior and vicarious experience, class, race, gender, and so on—as it is empirical. As with all aspects of policing, the dispensation of violence is not mechanical nor, often times, is it visible and accountable: officers may attend some incidents, while neglecting others (both of which may constitute aggressive behavior); and they may invoke formal powers against some, and use discretion with others (again, both of which may be perceived in equal measures as hostile; Waddington, 1999). Likewise, behavior by the police perceived as reactive or protective, even in some cases as innocuous or “standard” (e.g., speech, handcuffing), may by the same token be experienced as aggressive by those on the receiving end. Police violence is thus in many ways “in the eyes of the beholder,” much in the same way as legitimacy or perceptions of disorder (Bradford, Milani, & Jackson, 2017).

Some indicative, and suggestive, data do nevertheless exist. For example, a survey conducted in Ohio in 1992 reported that among the 38% of respondents who had had contact with police in the previous 12 months, 7% reported verbally abusive treatment and 1% reported physically abusive treatment (Son & Rome, 2004). A more recent 2016 on-line survey across four US cities (Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC) found that 6% of respondents reported a lifetime experience of “physical victimization” at the hands of police (e.g., having been hit, punched, kicked, dragged, or beaten by on officer); 3% reported a lifetime experience of sexual victimization; and 3% reported an experience of physical victimization using a weapon (DeVylder et al., 2016). Black and Latino respondents were more likely to report such experiences. Qualitative research has likewise produced copious amounts of evidence for commonplace experiences of excessive use of force with particular areas and populations, particularly Black communities in the US (e.g., Brunson, 2007; Brunson & Miller, 2005; Carr et al., 2007), and has of course linked such experiences to the destruction of relations between police and public in those communities.

What survey evidence there is in the UK also suggests that perceived experiences of excessive use of force by police are not particularly rare. The 2012/2013 Crime Survey of England and Wales, for example, estimates that around 1% of the population had been “annoyed” by police in the previous five years for reasons of excessive use of force or abusive behavior against themselves and/or someone they knew (authors’ own analysis). This corresponds quite closely with some older data, with Hough et al. (2002) reporting that of the 21% of people who reported being “annoyed” by police (in the five years leading up to 2000), some 6% gave unjust use of force or violence as the reason.

Taken together, force and violence seem to be relatively unusual aspects of police activity in the UK, but in the United States experience of these types of behavior is actually quite widespread, especially among communities of color. There is, then, an important distinction to be drawn here. As a matter of empirical fact, most police officers go about their business without abusing those they police, or even often using force at all, yet force is used by almost all at some time or other, and more importantly it is abused by some. Such incidents can have an enormous impact on the lives of those on the receiving end (DeVylder et al., 2016; Geller et al., 2014; Justice & Meares, 2014), as well as being frequent enough to shape the wider experiences of significant numbers of people. These experiences are, moreover, not evenly spread across the population. They are concentrated in particular areas or communities and police violence—as opposed to justified use of force—is hugely important in symbolic terms, serving as it does to indicate a rupture in the bond of trust between police and public and the misdirection, indeed subversion, of state power. It is for precisely these reasons that the impact of police violence on public sensibilities is, arguably, disproportionate to its prevalence, elevating the salience of this issue far beyond the level that might be indicated by simple numerical counts of the use of batons, restraints etc. The question then turns to what are some of theories that account for why it occurs.

Theories of Police Violence: Why it Occurs

As with the historical overview, this section only endeavors to outline a few of the possible and most prominent theories as to why police violence occurs to orient the proceeding discussion.

“Bad Apple Thesis”

One of the most prevalent, and perhaps morally appealing, explanations for police violence is encapsulated in the “Bad Apple Thesis” (Bayley, 1995; Bowling & Phillips, 2002; Weitzer, 2002; Loader & Mulcahy, 2003). On this account, violence is confined and contextualized as the actions of a few rotten apples in an otherwise clean barrel. These rogue officers have acted outside the scope and ethos of the department, using violence and corruption as a matter of individual prerogative. As Ian Loader and Aogán Mulcahy write (2003, p. 152), the bad apple thesis becomes a compelling and convenient explanatory device, allowing us to decontextualize police violence from a systematic problem, “[wrenching] it from its institutional setting and [relocating] in the heads and actions of discrete individual officers.” It is appealing both in providing a mea culpa for police while still preserving intact the legitimacy of the larger institution, but also because it falls within the category of the “solvable”—something attached to obvious and practical solutions. Ferret out and fire the individual “bad apples,” alter recruitment practices, shore up ethics training, establish monitoring committees, promote good behavior or, as is often the case in instances of racist violence, underrepresented minorities—these are resolutions that require minor practical restructuring and little moral maneuvering. Police violence thus becomes a matter of individual discretion and behavior, something distinct from the wider institution.

“Policing Subculture”

A variant of the bad apple thesis relates to the police institution more broadly and its facilitation of a distinctive subculture (Herbert, 1998). Anthony Miccuci and Ian Gomme (2005) write that this police subculture is characterized not only by suspiciousness, cynicism, and clannishness, but also hyper-masculinity, respect for authority, and valued experience and hierarchy. Within this framework the excessive use of force emerges from an entrenched “working personality” (Skolnick, 1994), often serving both an expressive and instrumental function associated with preserving a certain status quo or pedagogy: the “teaching of a lesson” (Scheingold, 1984), the disapproval and reassertion of normative boundaries (Jackson & Sunshine, 2007), and the demonstration of “pulling one’s weight” on the force (Van Maanen, 1974; Herbert, 1998). Articulations of this theory often focus on themes of machismo, honor, and respect, and the attendant desire to reassert status and power when questioned (Chevigny, 1995; Van Maanen, 1974; Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993). As Steve Herbert (1998, p. 359) explains, promoting a sense of competency “often means ensuring [police] authority is respected . . . [and] their commands followed . . . resistance to police authority is thus an anathema to officers and spurs a sometimes-violent response. Use of force, for example, frequently occurs at the end of pursuits; suspects receive a ‘payback’ for defying police commands.” As with the bad apple thesis, this explanation again appears less an indictment of the institution and more about the ethos it can reproduce, especially among lower ranking officers. It also positions violence—excessive, unjustified force—as a something that occurs essentially by mistake, while attempting to do the right thing (at least from the perspective of the officer), when officers are emotionally stressed, or due to an excess of zeal or a momentary lapse of judgment. Subcultural explanations thus remain popularly compelling. They maintain intuitive appeal and they offer readymade resolutions—those that, again, solicit pithy pledges to improve recruitment, training, and oversight.

“The Thin Blue Line”

Within this same tradition emerges a similarly moralistic explanation for police violence that focuses on police as defenders of a “thin blue line” within a wider struggle of good against evil (Manning, 1977; Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993; Livingston, 1994; Bayley, 1995; Lawrence, 2000). On this account, police are acting on behalf of the law-abiding, defending order and normative values in some putative war against crime. According to James Fyfe and Jerome Skolnick (1993, pp. 136–139), “the persistence of police violence . . . has its origins first in the . . . development of a ‘siege’ mentality among officers vis-à-vis [outsider] communities; and second, in the encouragement given to cops to view themselves as soldiers in an unwinnable war against inner-city crime.” Police violence is thus both a symptom and inevitability of the exigencies of “the street,” and may be exempted under some wartime exceptionalism (Cohen, 2002).

Beyond the obvious issues attached to casting police within this overwrought morality play come two perhaps less obvious corollaries. First, the notion of the thin blue line endows police with an “any-means-necessary” guarantee to carry out the aims of “justice” in the war against crime—a phenomenon Carl Klockars (1980) and others have termed the “Dirty Harry Problem.” It immediately couples policing with justice, such that anything “anti-police” becomes implicitly criminal—a notion that, as Herbert (1998, p. 360) suggests, may inhere in the very phrase “I’m the police” (a somehow descriptive and exonerative tag indicating ethical conduct and propriety). Here the possibility of excessive, unjustified force is essentially discounted. Police are simply doing “whatever it takes” to fight crime. Secondly, it can create a sense in which the public adjudication of police behavior is seen to be ill informed or unwarranted. As David Bayley (1995, pp. 97–98) describes, in portraying policework to the public, emphasis is often placed on “the scientific nature of the work, the subtleties of making decisions on the spur of the moment in dangerous and complex situations, the legal expertise required, and the stressful and dangerous nature of their work.” Evaluating the (im)propriety of operational decisions may thus be seen as opaque, mitigated by specialized knowledge to which we are not privy, or perhaps even “not one’s place” (Manning, 1977; Bayley, 1995; Cohen, 2002).

While this may understate the ability of “the public” to form views about the police—particularly as (a) people have become increasingly critical of institutions of all kinds, and (b) policework itself has become more “visible” (cf., the role of video technology in police transparency, Ariel et al., 2015)—it nevertheless captures the deference and presumption of “rightness” people often feel toward police. This presumption may emerge from a feeling that one has a moral duty to obey police, a sense that police are in some sense arbiters of moral behavior, and relatedly, that they are licensed to act as needed in pursuit of justice (Bradford & Jackson, 2016; Hough, Bradford, Jackson, & Quinton, 2016; Gerber & Jackson, 2017). In other words, conduct can be made legitimate and appropriate by virtue of the actors involved (Bradford & Jackson, 2016). This argument is expanded upon in later sections.

The Role of the Public

While the roots of police violence cannot be reduced to a single general theory, all of the aforementioned explanations locate its causes within the police, as symptomatic of an entity distinct and autonomous from the public. Yet, police violence does not occur in a vacuum—it is “read,” responded to, and judged by the people police serve and by its institutional peers (other criminal justice actors, government, the media, etc.). Responses to police violence may be crucial in propagating or inhibiting it—at the most basic level, it might be expected that widespread public outcry, backed by institutional intervention, can create irresistible pressure on police organizations to root out bad apples, refocus training to address subcultural orientations toward the use of force, and so on. By contrast, indifference to violent incidents appears certain to allow the problem to fester. In particular, the remainder of this entry focuses on the public and, more specifically, the role that shared group identity with police plays in the acceptance of police violence. This idea is not necessarily new. David Garland (1990) for example, has argued that penal sensibilities, and perhaps by extension thresholds for violence and acceptance of punitive policing (Harkin, 2015), are conditioned by culture as well as larger political and social-psychological factors (Bradford, Jackson, & Hough, 2013; Bradford & Jackson, 2016; Gerber & Jackson, 2017). However, this chapter extends and expands this argument, focusing specifically on the role that social identity plays in the way the public understand police violence. In doing so we address what seems to be a central yet often unexplored question: why are (so many) people so accepting of (so much) police violence?

Social Identity and the Acceptance of Police Violence

At the threshold, what follows is bottom-up analysis of public attitudes towards police violence in the United States and United Kingdom. Building off the arguments of Bradford and colleagues (2016) and Gerber and Jackson (2017), we examine the paradoxical role that the public in these two countries plays in response to and indeed persistence of police violence. First, while one might intuit that police violence has had a negative impact on public assessments of police in the United States and the United Kingdom, in fact ratings of confidence and support for police has been largely stable in both nations over the last several decades, with the majority of the American and British public reporting fairly high levels of support for police despite the recent barrage of high-profile brutality cases (Gallup, 2014; Home Office, (2016). In the United States, for example, the police have been consistently rated as one of the most valued and trusted public institutions in the country (Gallup, 2014).

Secondly, from a historical perspective, and despite the stream of highly-publicized reports of violence which has in many ways come to characterize policing of the late-20th century, an argument could be made that policing in the United Kingdom and the United States has changed remarkably little in the last half century. It would seem there is a relatively high threshold for external pressure to “kick in” and mobilize any significant institutional reform (Bradford & Jackson, 2016; Murray & Harkin, 2016; Harkin, 2015; Loader & Mulcahy, 2003). Indeed, the history of policing in the United States and the United Kingdom seems can be seen as framed by two twin puzzles: (1) why, given the revelations of a whole series of cases involving police violence, has support for police not collapsed; and (2) why do current police organizations, and often personnel, remain essentially unchanged from decade to decade, despite these revelations? One answer to these puzzles may be that significant sections of the population are forgiving of malpractice (and possibly violence), and are motivated to support police despite sometimes egregious abuses of power, because the legitimacy police command and the social-identity processes that sustain it encourage them to do so (Loader & Mulcahy, 2003).

Legitimacy and Social Identity Theory

According to Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and later Self-Categorization Theory (Turner, 1984), individuals derive some aspect of their self-concept and definition from the social groups to which they belong. Whether it be “woman,” “Londoner,” “African American,” “Buddhist,” or “Arsenal fan,” these markers concentrically make up how individuals see themselves and others, determining the basis for “ingroup” and “outgroup” divisions. As groups become more salient (“intimacy groups” like family tend to carry more existential weight than “task groups” like occupation; Lickel et al., 2000), they become more integral to individuals’ sense of self and their subsequent behavior. This idea becomes central to how people evaluate (and perhaps exonerate and exempt) police behavior.

According to Bradford and colleagues (2016, pp. 7–9), when people feel a shared group membership with police and believe that police are, and behave as, prototypical representatives of a group to which they belong, they are more likely to both hold police as legitimate, as well as the particular set of social relations that determine this position (Turner & Reynolds, 2010). When people categorize themselves as members of a social group to which they feel police also belong and represent (for example, the “law-abiding” group) they are motivated to support the police because they perceive the police to be legitimate authorities of that group.

On this account, policing relays important identity-relevant information to individuals, helping to construct and shape their sense of self (Tyler & Blader, 2000, 2003; Bradford & Jackson, 2016). Fair treatment from police can indicate inclusion, status, and belonging, thus strengthening shared group identities (between police and citizen, and possibly also between citizen and citizen within the same group), and therefore a sense of legitimacy (Bradford, 2014; Bradford, Hohl, Jackson, & MacQueen, 2015; Bradford & Jackson, 2016). It also indicates value and worth, thus buoying individuals’ self-esteem and feelings of affirmation (van Dijk et al., 2011). Fairness also indicates that police are behaving in morally acceptable ways and, accordingly, that they are valid and appropriate group representatives.

Of course, people’s reasons for feeling a sense of shared group membership with police are not limited to perceptions of fair or unfair treatment. They may also relate in important ways to their wider sense of social and political embeddedness and affiliation. As Ian Loader and Aogán Mulcahy (2003) write, the British police in the popular consciousness are often associated with the preservation of a particular social order related to the nation state, thus identification with them may stem not from day-to-day, instrumental encounters but from the symbolism and nostalgia they conjure. Here what the police do is perhaps less important than what they represent and their symbolic power (Bourdieu, 1991) to define respectability, belonging, and membership (Waddington, 1999).

Indeed, social identity is always based in distinction and in judgment about “us” and “them” (Turner & Reynolds, 2010). While this process need not and does not inevitably lead to ingroup bias and outgroup discrimination (Leach & Spears, 2008), it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that under some conditions the extent to which people feel they share a group identity with the police will influence their propensity to support police action against members of denigrated outgroups—particularly relevant to other(s) against which the group shared with police is defined (i.e., “criminal” groups).

These ideas seem particularly pertinent given that the identity most often associated with police—in the Anglophone world, at least—is that of the nation, state, and community, or more concretely, the “law-abiding citizens” of these communities (Bradford, 2014; Bradford et al., 2015). Research using British and Australian data has found consistent associations between this type of social identity and judgments about the fairness and legitimacy of the police. People who identify more strongly as law-abiding citizens tend to have experienced procedural fairness at the hands of officers, believe police are fair in a more general sense, and grant more legitimacy. One relevant “other” in this case is obvious: the “non-law-abiding citizen” or “offender” (another may often be ethnic and other minority groups, particularly in contexts where ethnocentrism is strong and the police represent the dominant ethnic group). It may therefore be that the degree to which people identify as “law-abiding citizens” predicts support for aggressive police activity in relation to offenders.

This is not to say that all those who identify as law-abiding support police violence. Far from it. Such a self-categorization may make one more likely to ignore, discount, or find reason for such violence, and the visibility of the act may be important here. For example, people who identify with the police and the social categories they represent may find it more palatable to simply ignore violence that occurs “off-stage,” or about which they hear second or third hand, not the least to avoid cognitive and emotional discomfort that would be involved in recognizing such violence. But when confronted with violence they cannot ignore, they may react strongly, particularly inasmuch as it can be construed as illegal—something they, as law-abiding citizens, “must” stand against. That said, there is ample evidence that even overt and sometimes egregious police violence can be justified on the basis of (perceptions of) shared group membership with police. One obvious example here is the reaction of many white Americans to the shooting and beating of their black fellow citizens by police, and of course the acquittal of many of the officers involved in such events.

The Data

A recent US-based study found that legitimacy was related to people’s belief that violence is acceptable but only in normatively acceptable circumstances (Gerber & Jackson, 2017). People who believe that the police act in normatively appropriate ways may also tend to believe that it is acceptable for the police to use force against (for example) someone who is resisting arrest or as a means of self-defense. Believing that the police are a proper and just institution may, in other words, encourage them to support actions that fall within existing normative boundaries of behavior (witness public outcry when disproportionate police violence is used but not when reasonable police violence is used). Conversely, people who tend not to believe that the police are legitimate may also tend not to believe that it is acceptable for the police to use force against (for instance) someone who is resisting arrest and as a means of self-defense. They withdraw support for even reasonable violence because the use of such a specific power is premised on the rightfulness of their power more broadly.

Conversely, normative alignment may be unrelated to attitudes towards excessive use of force, precisely because such practice sits outside of widely shared societal norms—assuming of course that excessive use of force steps outside of societal expectations regarding the appropriate use of power. Legitimacy is bound up with societal expectations about desirable conduct, won when authority figures act in normatively appropriate ways, and lost when they do not. Legitimacy encourages normatively appropriate law-related attitudes and behaviors—and if excessive violence is counter-normative, then the acceptability of excessive use of force may be generally low and normative alignment may be uncorrelated with support for excessive force. The general belief that the police act appropriately might not translate into support for them to act inappropriately in certain limited contexts.

Normative alignment with the police was also a significant predictor of support for reasonable (but not excessive) force in another recent study, this time UK-based (Bradford et al., 2017), and the same study also found that social identity was a predictor of support for both reasonable and excessive police violence. It is entirely plausible to suggest that they “read” such stories in the light of their pre-existing opinions of, or relationships with, police, and judge the acceptability of police action accordingly. Social identity judgments—essentially, in-group favoritism—may be an important factor in sustaining wide public support for police in the face of behavior that might otherwise undermine it. There is likely a deductive element to this process, such that the characteristics of discrete individuals (i.e., police officers) are inferred from the attributes of a group as a whole (e.g., that the group, and the police as representatives of it, are legitimate, just, and proper). There is also likely an inductive element, such that the defining characteristics of the groups involved are inferred from the typical or common attributes of group members/actions (i.e., because most police-public encounters are legitimate, police may be seen as legitimate; Turner, 1984, p. 527). Social identity judgments and legitimacy may thus reproduce and sustain each other in a recursive cycle. While this work only touched the surface of the theoretical and practical implications of this process, it may go some way towards accounting for the simultaneous, even complementary, existence of police legitimacy and malpractice.

Public Support, Normative Alignment, and Social Identity: Next Steps

While this chapter only offers a condensed overview of some of the major historical, theoretical, and political factors behind police violence in the United States and England and Wales—and is qualified with several notable caveats (e.g., the lack of official US data on lethal police shootings, geographic restrictions to the United States and the United Kingdom, to name but a few)—the goal has been to refocus academic attention toward social identity and the public’s role in accepting and even enabling police violence. Police officers are authorized to use force but the use of this power must accord with the law, professional standards, and most importantly in this context, social norms (Gerber & Jackson, 2017, p. 80). The focus of this entry has been to examine the ways in which violent police behavior can be enabled and supported (though also constrained and condemned) by shared social identity, and how it can take on different meanings in different contexts.

To that end, this entry concludes with a call for greater research on some of the counterintuitive and perhaps less liberally appealing aspects of police violence: namely, the mediating effects of legitimacy and social identity, the varying thresholds of tolerance across culture and jurisdiction, the persistence of public support for police in spite of this level of malpractice, and Diarmaid Harkin’s (2015) contention that violence may confer certain benefits for police. Police violence may in many ways be more subjective and relative than is often considered, and the role of social identity in shaping public attitudes toward police cannot be overlooked. Indeed, the deep historic and emotional commitment many have to police (Loader & Mulcahy, 2003), the fervor with which certain individuals and groups cleave to police-defined identities, and often the culturally-conditioned impulse to couple policing with “justice,” are all critical to how violent incidents are read by the public. We are not arguing that violence is entirely interpreted though, or even exculpated by, shared social identity. Our point is that police violence can be acknowledged as unfair or inappropriate, for some people the legitimacy of the institution endures because the scope of that unfairness is bounded and because it bears an ostensible purpose: to serve and secure the place of the law abiding. Or, perhaps even more insidious, for certain groups these practices of outgroup-directed violence may serve to legitimate (and thus motivate) police behavior (Harkin, 2015; Gerber & Jackson, 2017; Gerber et al., in press). Until further research explores these important questions, we can only speculate, and as news of police violence continues to take center stage and political and public pressure mounts in response, these lines of enquiry are becoming ever more important to pursue.

Further Reading

Alpert, G. P., & Dunham, R. G. (2004). Understanding police use of force: Officers, suspects, and reciprocity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Alpert, G. P., MacDonald, J. M., & Dunham, R. G. (2005). Police suspicion and discretionary decision making during citizen stops. Criminology, 43(2), 407–434.Find this resource:

Alpert, G. P., Smith, M. R., Kaminski, R. J., Fridell, L. A., MacDonald, J., & Kubu, B. (2011). Police use of force, tasers and other less-lethal weapons (Report No. NCJ 232215). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.Find this resource:

Ariel, B., Farrar, W. A., & Sutherland, A. (2015). The effect of police body-worn cameras on use of force and citizens’ complaints against the police: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 31, 509–535.Find this resource:

Bradford, B., & Jackson, J. (2016). Enabling and constraining police power: On the moral regulation of policing. In J. Jacobs & J. Jackson (Eds.), Routledge handbook of criminal justice ethics (pp. 219–237). Oxford: Routledge.Find this resource:

Bradford, B., Milani, J., & Jackson, J. (2017). Identity, legitimacy and “making sense” of police use of force. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 40(3), 614–627.Find this resource:

Brodeur, J. P. (2010). The policing web. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Gerber, M., & Jackson, J. (2017). Justifying violence: legitimacy, ideology and public support for police use of force. Psychology, Crime & Law, 23(1), 79–95.Find this resource:

Johnson, D., & Kuhns, J. B. (2009). Striking out: Race and support for police use of force. Justice Quarterly, 26(3), 592–623.Find this resource:

Tyler, T. R., Jackson, J., & Mentovich, A. (2015). On the consequences of being a target of suspicion: Potential pitfalls of proactive police contact. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 12(4), 602–636.Find this resource:

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