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How Often Do the Police Use Force?

To watch the media's endless replay of bodycam or smart phone recordings, you would think the police get up in the morning eager to see who they can bully, slug, menace, grab, punch, push, throw to the ground or otherwise brutalize.  I recall one episode recently in which a school security officer In Columbia, SC, was shown, in the words of Reason Magazine, as he "tackled a girl who was sitting in her desk, dragged her across the room, pinned her, and arrested her."  The Reason article included a tape of the episode, which was re-played in the accompanying news segment not fewer than eighteen times.

Q:  Why does it get re-played eighteen times?

A:  To create the impression that this kind of thing goes on endlessly.

Q:  How often does it actually go on, when we look at data rather than anecdote?

A:  Next to never.

Q:  How do we know that?

A:  From this DOJ study, quietly released three weeks ago, which states, inter alia, "[A]n annual average of 44 million U.S. residents age 16 or older had one or more face-to-face contacts with police from 2002 to 2011, and an estimated 1.6 percent experienced the threat or use of nonfatal force during the most recent contact."

Or put differently, 98.4% did not.  And this tracks the experience (1) as perceived unfiltered by the citizen, not as understood by the officer, and (2) it includes threats (i.e., words) in addition to actual force.

I regret to report that this sort of grossly misleading use of anecdote has become routine in public debate.


If an adult civilian resorted to violence, once in every one hundred interactions he had with another civilian, then he would be considered a very dangerous person. He would be considered an anti-social psychopath. Very likely, he would be incarcerated or under psychiatric observation.

Yet if the police get into a fist to cuffs resort to violence once in every hundred interactions, then that is not worthy of,at the least a consideration, that something might be wrong.

Yes, yes, the cops are dealing with the very worst element of society. But that very same worst element interacts with other civilians, every day, and avoids violence more often than 99 out of 100 times.

1.6 percent of 44 million people is more than 70,000 incidents of the threat or use of force. Whether that is okay or excessive is a question one could debate, but it seems odd to suggest that something that happens 70,000 times in a nine year period is occurring "next to never."

One reason for the recent focus on videos of use of force is that these videos often capture the experiences of people of color in dealing with the police and the tendency of some officers to deal very aggressively with people who look a certain way -- a factor that is highlighted in the study to which you link. As in the video you mention and many other videos that emerged this year, force sometimes seems to be applied in a manner that is not well justified by the problem confronted by the officer. The videos simply confirm that this is a real phenomenon, though of course it's difficult to say how common these kinds of things actually are.

-- If your kid comes home from school with a report card that contains 98.4% A's, you would be completely justified in bragging to your friends that your kid gets something less than an A "next to never."

-- The repetition of the Columbia, SC school episode 18 times in the same news clip is propaganda, pure and simple. And the reason for it is to paint the cops as Nazis, as both of us know.

I would only add a couple of comments;

The period considered by the survey was 10 years, not 9.

And among those who self-reported as being the object (recipient?) of police force, including the verbal threat of force only, 85% of whites, 90% of Hispanics and 92% of blacks claimed that the police behaved improperly during the contact. So, if we are to accept the self-reporting as accurate, which the press release from the BJS seems to do, then nearly every single instance of police force use - including harsh language alone - in the U S in the last ten years has been improper.

I suggest this is more likely evidence of the inaccuracy built into the basic premise of the study.

The study also does did not ask those involved in the contact with police if they were under the influence of alcohol or narcotics at the time of the contact, something I would have thought germane to both accuracy and circumstance.


Some astute observations there.

Given the virtually uniform human tendency for self-justification, it is to be expected that the great majority of people who have interactions like this with the police will think they are right and the cops are wrong.

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