Society, Justice and Law

Seattle University Study Finds Regional Variation in Police Use of Force and Injury

November 23, 2020

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In what the authors say are findings using the largest and most comprehensive database ever on police use of force, a new study documents regional variation in use of force and injury - with a focus on Washington, California and Wisconsin incidents

In what the authors say are findings using the largest and most comprehensive database ever on police use of force, a new study documents regional variation in use of force and injury.

“Specifically, we find that injury rates are higher in sampled agencies from Washington and California, as compared to Midwestern states like Wisconsin,” says Matthew Hickman, PhD, professor and chair of Seattle University’s Criminal Justice program. Hickman is the corresponding author on the paper,Police Use of Force and Injury: Multilevel Predictors of Physical Harm to Subjects and Officers,” published in the Nov. 8 issue of Police Quarterly.

“Washington police officers go to the taser, California officers rely heavily on strikes and batons and Wisconsin police hardly ever use weapons,” he says. “This reflects police officer training. As a result, injury rates vary quite a bit.”

The police must on occasion use physical force and weapons in order to apprehend and control subjects and fulfill the police function. It is inevitable that some of these interactions will result in injuries to both subjects and officers, with a range of both tangible and intangible harms and costs, according to the abstract of the study.

“It is therefore important to study injuries related to the use of force with an eye toward identifying opportunities to minimize injury and reduce the harms and costs,” the study notes.

Researchers examined injuries to both subjects and officers from a sample of more than 10,000 use of force incidents drawn from 81 agencies throughout eight states.

The authors say this study demonstrates why it is important for states considering mandatory use of force reporting requirements—an issue currently before the Washington State legislature—to go beyond just deadly force incidents and require agencies to report on all uses of force.

“Deadly force incidents are certainly important, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scope of police use of force and we will not learn anything from it,” says Hickman. fulfill “States that only require what the FBI is already asking for cannot call themselves progressive. It would be a waste of time and money to limit mandatory data reporting to deadly force.”

Among the key findings:

  • The likelihood of injury for both subjects and officers is lower when force incidents end quickly and with the minimal necessary superior level of force relative to subject resistance and higher for both subjects and officers when subjects flee.
  • Midwestern states (primarily Wisconsin) have substantially lower injury rates that appear to be associated with their less frequent use of weapons and greater reliance on low-level physical force tactics, as compared to agencies in the sample from Western and other states,” says Hickman. For example, in data from the Wisconsin agencies, injury rates for subjects and officers are 21 and 11 percent, respectively, much lower than the overall base rates of 52 and 16 percent for the entire sample. Part of this is potentially attributable to less reliance on weapons and greater reliance on low-level physical tactics.
  • Female subjects are less likely to be injured, as are the officers in these incidents, as compared to incidents involving male subjects. Black persons were less likely to be injured, as compared to white subjects, and officers were less likely to be injured when subjects were in “other” race categories as compared to white. Older persons were more likely to be injured, while presenting decreased likelihood of injury to officers.
  • Longer force interactions lead to higher injury rates for both parties is consistent with and extends prior research. “This provides empirical evidence that supports what police trainers already know from their experience and reflects the training that is presently delivered in many law enforcement academies: In order to minimize injury resulting from use of force, end it quickly with the minimum necessary superior level of force. This often manifests in guidance to rely on takedowns, where appropriate.”

The authors say the findings could reflect law enforcement training in those states.

They write, “While we cannot make a direct empirical connection between training and the lower injury rates observed for these agencies, and we again caution that these findings are exploratory and speculative, we offer this as some initial support for examining the variability in training practices generally that could account for observed state or regional differences in the use of force. More broadly, it is important to ask the question of why use of force training should vary across the states.”

The most recent available national data on law enforcement training academies shows great variation in how basic law enforcement training is delivered across the states.

“Ultimately, use of force will to some degree reflect the ‘local standards’ of the agencies in which the officers work. But the goals are always the same regardless of the state or locality: to apprehend or control a subject and/or to protect life,” the authors say. “Presuming we can know a ‘best way’ or ‘better way’ to do it (with outcomes such as injury potential being part of the evaluation), why would we not want every officer in the United States to do it that way?”

Co-authors of the study are Seattle University Criminal Justice faculty William S. Parkin, PhD, and Peter A. Collins, PhD, Jared N. Strote of the Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Washington and Robert M. Scales of Police Strategies LLC, Seattle.

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