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Police use of force is the application in a law enforcement capacity of physical or psychological coercion against citizens. Under the law, police officers have the authority to use force for enforcing laws, preventing criminal activity, defending others, and defending themselves. They have the discretionary power to use different degrees of force against citizens who choose to violate the law. Forceful responses can range from officer presence to the use of weapons. One approach to understanding forceful responses against citizens is psychological. There is psychological knowledge bearing on (a) how officers formulate and carry out their decisions to use force by encoding situational information, making a decision to act, developing a plan of action, and initiating action; (b) how officers’ involvement in a force situation puts them at risk of experiencing stress that causes unfavorable changes in their perception and memory; (c) how police candidates with particular personality traits are at risk of on-the-job problems with using force; and (d) how officers whose job-related experiences involve traumatic force situations are vulnerable to developing behaviors that lead to the use of excessive force.
An officer formulates and carries out a decision to use force against a citizen by encoding situational information, making a decision to act, developing a plan of action, and initiating action.
Encoding Situational Information
Encoding is a process in which the officer attends to situational conditions. It involves the sensory register, the first structure of the officer’s memory system. The sensory register is responsible for registering all features of the force situation through sensory functions—for example, seeing a citizen holding a gun, hearing a gunshot, and smelling gunfire. Sensory systems keep the officer informed about the force situation. They extract information and convert it to electrical impulses that travel to the thalamus, which is located in the diencephalon of the brain. The thalamus directs sensory input to associated cortex areas of the brain, where the officer becomes aware of sensation and interprets it.
Making a Decision to Act
Making a decision to act takes place in the officer’s short-term memory. The officer consciously discriminates, selects, and attends to sensations that are most dangerous, while reducing attention to less dangerous information. The officer considers the magnitude of the force situation and the probability of harm occurring if he or she takes no protective or enforcement action. What researchers know with confidence is that officers consider citizen behavior most important when making decisions to use force. A need to use force triggers cognitive events that help the officer develop a best plan of action. If the officer fails to pay attention to important sensory input, his or her plan of action will be less than optimal.
The limbic system is associated with making a decision to act in response to situational demands. It surrounds the upper brainstem and consists of interconnected neural structures, which include the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala helps regulate emotion, and it contributes to the officer’s drive to act. The hippocampus is responsible for memory storage. It gives the officer access to experience when making a decision to act.
Developing a Plan of Action
Once the officer makes a decision to act, he or she begins developing a plan of action. The officer accesses long-term memory and matches the sensory input with a response that best fits the conditions of the force situation. The appropriateness of the response depends on the extent to which the officer selected important sensory stimuli, and the officer’s response reflects endorsed training practices, accepted legal principles, and approved police policies. In familiar force situations, responses are available. In novel situations, the officer might search his or her experience for possible responses or use a past strategy.
Developing a plan of action begins in the brain’s association cortex areas, which integrate sensory input. They carry out the processes that take place between sensation and action, which include perceiving, learning, remembering, and planning. Neural structures of the projection system—basal ganglia, cerebellum, and motor cortex—relay details of the officer’s plan to the spinal system.
The spinal system is responsible for initiating the plan of action. It sends motor neurons that carry details of the plan of action out to various muscle groups that will perform the action of force. It serves as the final pathway that links the central nervous system with the skeletal muscular system.
Stress is a state of psychological tension. It is a reaction or effect caused by unfavorable physical, psychological, or social forces, such as in a force situation. The force situation acts as an alarm signal that triggers the stress response. The officer’s sympathetic nervous system becomes abnormally active. It starts autonomic and endocrine responses that prepare the officer’s body for a fight or flight. Hormonal discharges, such as the secretion of corticotrophin-releasing factor, adrenocorticotropic hormone, cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, energize the officer’s body. The stress response helps the officer perform at his or her best in the force situation. However, exposure to the force situation can lead to an increase in arousal that amounts to a peak stress condition. When in a state of peak stress, an officer experiences unfavorable changes in his or her memory and perception.
The adrenal gland secretes cortisol. Research shows that high cortisol levels impair memory functions. The effect, however, is temporary. Memory functions return as cortisol levels return to normal. The officer might find it difficult to access long-term memory and match sensory input with a response that best fits the demands of the force situation.
The officer’s pupils dilate to gather extra situational information, but his or her perceptual system narrows its field of focus. There is a loss of peripheral vision. The officer might retreat to widen his or her peripheral field. The officer might also overlook important visual cues and develop a less than optimal plan of action. Other possible perceptual distortions include auditory blunting, auditory exclusion, and tachypsychia.
The dominant response to peak stress is hypervigilance. The hypervigilant officer panics and becomes hypersensitive to situational cues. The officer cannot discriminate threatening from nonthreatening cues. A lack of attention to important situational cues might lead the officer to choose an incorrect response to the force situation.
Optimal stress in a force situation depends on factors that are unique to the officer. Some officers perform better with arousal than do others. A skillful officer who has good coping abilities can offset the negative stress effects. Under peak stress conditions, officers experience delays in encoding situational information, making a decision to act, developing a plan of action, and initiating action.
Police psychologists use personality tests to predict police candidates’ behavioral predispositions to use force. Candidates must demonstrate a willingness to use force. Yet they must show self-restraint. Psychologists have linked job-related uses of force with test scores on personality tests such as the California Psychological Inventory (CPI) and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Low CPI scale scores on socialization, self-control, and well-being have led to disciplinary actions against officers for unnecessary use of force. Elevated MMPI scale scores on infrequency, psychopathic deviation, and hypomania, combined with control in psychological adjustment, correctly classified aggressive officers who received disciplinary actions for aggressive misconduct against offenders, inmates, coworkers, or family members.
Which police candidates are prone to the abuse of force? Personality tests contribute some knowledge about candidates’ tendency to use force. What police psychologists know is that most often, police candidates who are successful on the job do not demonstrate personality traits of impulsivity, hostility, undue aggression, and poor frustration tolerance, which put them at risk of having difficulty with on-the-job use of force. Being prone to the abuse of force, however, might be more than a matter of personality traits measured at the candidate or predisposition level. Researchers have found that some officers who had high rates of excessive force complaints had also received superior supervisory performance ratings. Psychologists had rated them as suitable for police training and work.
Not all psychologically healthy officers are free from the abuse of force. Using excessive force or using force excessively might be an outcome of personality traits that police candidates develop on the job rather than something that they bring to the job. For example, police work involves the possibility of danger all the time. Danger shapes police-training practices. Officers learn to see citizens as potentially uncooperative, armed, and dangerous. They work in an environment of condition yellow: continually occupied with the present danger of the police-citizen contact. Some researchers have suggested that because officers focus on the interpersonal dangers of police-citizen contacts, they develop a suspicious and authoritarian work personality. To cope with danger and keep safe, they employ a heavy-handed or take-charge work attitude. They are at risk of using force against citizens where none is usually necessary.
Police use of force is not a simple extension of predispositional or changing personality patterns of officers. Situational factors such as instigation might determine some acts of excessive force not predicted by officers’ psychological profiles. Organizational factors such as endorsed training practices, accepted legal principles, and approved police policies might attenuate the effects of personality traits. Psychological paradigms offer some insight into police personality traits that might manifest themselves in the form of undue force against citizens.
Officers routinely respond to calls for service that involve violence and danger. Exposure to traumatic job-related events, such as participating in officer-involved shootings, puts officers at risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder, which can lead to difficulties with on-the-job use of force. For example, some officers lose control or use excessive force when they suppress postshooting trauma or other job-related trauma. Responses to postshooting trauma sometimes involve officers rushing possible force situations to experience the thrill again. Symptoms of postshooting trauma, such as trouble sleeping, emotional fatigue, anger, alcohol abuse, and anxiety, sometimes reveal themselves in the form of excessive use of force.
Police burnout, shift work, role expectations, and organizational stress are other job-related experiences that can result in undue use of force. Steps in place to understand and control police use of force are preemployment psychological screening, use-of-force training, and psychological monitoring. Police psychologists use psychological tests to screen out police candidates who show particular personality traits that might lead to difficulties with on-the-job use of force. Use-of-force training occurs at the recruit and incumbent levels. Psychological perspectives on police decision making and performance in use-of-force situations are typical topics that police trainers discuss. Monitoring the psychological fitness of officers following their involvement in traumatic job-related force situations involves officers participating in critical-incident debriefings, peer support programs, or individual counseling.
- Geller, W. A., & Toch, H. (Eds.). (1995). And justice for all: Understanding and controlling police abuse of force. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum.
- Scrivner, E. M. (1994). Controlling police use of excessive force: The role of the police psychologist. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Twersky-Glasner, A. (2005). Police personality: What is it and why are they like that? Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 20(1), 56-67.
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- Worden, R. E. (1995). Police officers’ belief systems: A framework for analysis. American Journal of Police, 14(1), 49-81.
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