Research Spotlight: Police Officer Use of Force and Citizen Complaints

In recent years police organizations in the United States have fallen under a microscope as society has questioned the role of police officers in cities. Much of this questioning has been driven by high profile incidents between police officers and in particular people of color. From the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles to the encounter and eventual death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City Police Department, segments of society have called for an end to unjust police use of force. This has been spearheaded by organizations such as Black Lives Matter and the ACLU calling for an end to predatory policing and unjust use of force policies by local and state departments. At the same time organizations such as Blue Lives Matter and police unions have countered purporting that there is no racial or gender bias by police officers as it pertains to use of force. 

While competing narratives have taken shape in American society little is known as to how officers choose to use force in situations and if there is any racial or gender bias during police encounters that amount in heightened levels of force used. To study this subject more meticulously I analyze citizen complaint outcomes for police use of force from two cities: Indianapolis and New Orleans. Analyzing citizen complaint data from these two cities serves several purposes. First, while one city (New Orleans) is a medium sized police department, the vast majority of police officers serving the majority Black city are also officers of color. On the other end of the spectrum, (Indianapolis) a large police department that serves a population that has 42.7% people of color only employs 15% of its officers who are non-White. Both cities track police use of force complaints from 2013 to 2017, with detailed information about the citizen, the officer the encounter and the outcome of the citizen complaint. 

My analysis from the police use of force incidents revealed some common trends previously identified in the literature. First, in both New Orleans and Indianapolis Blacks were two and a half times more likely to have force used against them in the data from 2013 to 2017. Second, men were three times as likely to have forced used against them compared to women. When digging deeper the findings indicate that Black citizens are more likely to have their complaint sustained when filed against a White officer compared to a White citizen. Moreover, male citizens are less likely to have their complaint sustained compared to females.

One of the surprising findings was in regard to the likelihood that Black complaints against police are more likely to be sustained compared to Whites. One driving factor behind this is that Blacks may only be filing complaints against the most egregious police actions which results in more sustained complaints. Previous research has documented that Blacks are less likely to file complaints compared to Whites because of the time it takes to file these complaints and a fear of retaliation by police. While this analysis provides some level of understanding of the outcome of citizen complaints, not all instances of unjust force result in a citizen filing a complaint. 

The second major finding is that males were less likely to have their complaint sustained and less likely to have their complaint exonerated. Referring to these two cities, male citizens may file more complaints, but they are less likely to have them sustained. Several scenarios can explain this phenomenon. There is a higher number of complaints from male citizens in the data, so female citizens may not be as willing to file complaints against male officers because there may be increased retaliation from officers as well as unequal power dynamics between male police officers and female citizens. Second, complaints are filed by more males even if complaints lack the necessary substance to warrant a sustained verdict.

In totality more research is needed on understanding what factors lead to citizen complaints being sustained. Furthermore, understanding whether the complaint review process takes place internally or is decided by an external group of experts is key. 

This research was published in the journal Public Performance and Management Review. Read the full article: Will They Even Hear Me? How Race Influences Citizen Complaint Outcomes

Dr. James Wright II is an assistant professor in the Askew School of Public Administration. Learn more about his work here.

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