Advancing Police Use of Force Research

In the past few years, the use of force by police officers has been getting increasingly more attention in the United States and elsewhere, with many advocates pushing for widespread reform in this regard. Unfortunately though, research on police use of force still fails to provide answers to many important questions. A recently published article in the British Psychological Society’s Urgent Issues and Prospects series summarizes the most urgent issues in police use of force based on knowledge from police scholars and practitioners. The article outlines key considerations for advancing police use of force research, many of which center around police de-escalation and use of force training.

De-escalation training is a topic that has been coming up more and more lately, though empirical evidence on its effectiveness remains limited. A recent multidisciplinary systematic review by researchers at the University of Cincinnati found 64 total evaluations on de-escalation trainings that had been published as of 2016, though none of these evaluations were in the criminal justice literature (most of them were in the fields of nursing or psychiatry). The authors ranked the strength of each design in terms of its strength in drawing conclusions about program’s effectiveness. Of the 64 evaluations reviewed, three studies met the minimum threshold for detecting an effect, while 61 were below this threshold. The results of the review showed some positive effects related to trainee attitudes (e.g. confidence, knowledge of strategies), however, the impact of training on trainees’ behavior varied widely. Positive changes in self-reported behavior were apparent 43 percent of the time, with trainees indicating greater ability to use verbal and physical de-escalation skills, enhanced capacity for coping with aggressive people, and reduced levels of personal aggression during violent encounters. Since the systematic review was published in 2020, researchers have increased efforts to evaluate police-specific de-escalation programs and disseminate results as rapidly as possible. Several studies are currently underway, and some preliminary results have been promising in terms of reducing use-of-force encounters as well as citizen and officer injuries.

There is no standard model for de-escalation, which makes it difficult to compare outcomes from one de-escalation program with another. Generally speaking, de-escalation tactics tend to overlap with communication and interpersonal effectiveness skills present within other types of training, such as those seen in crisis intervention training (CIT) or in procedural justice training. Further complicating matters, it can be challenging to compare agencies to each other due to vast differences in how they define and document use of force. Another challenge related to studying police use of force is that these incidents are incredibly complex situations that unfold in a matter of seconds, the depth of which is difficult to conceptualize and measure. Commonly used use of force continua attempt to equate certain levels of force to levels of suspect resistance, but this method is insufficient in capturing the full complexities associated with use-of-force incidents. Thankfully, new technology such as body-worn cameras have allowed for some progress in this area that is ongoing. However, there is a wide variety in the content and modality of police de-escalation trainings across agencies.

Another idea discussed in the Urgent Issues article pertains to police officers’ stress physiology and the potential impact on performance and uses of force. During threatening encounters, an officer’s nervous system produces a physiological response that can alter perceptions of threat and/or behavior, creating major implications for officer decision-making during stressful encounters. The authors argue that one of the most urgent issues is to provide training to officers that would allow them to modulate their physiological response to stress and increase their likelihood of being able to remain calm and level-headed during an encounter. Arguably, this type of training could improve an officer’s ability to interact with the public and enhance their ability to de-escalate and/or slow down situations when needed.

While the urgent issues highlighted in the article are not exhaustive, they present a few key areas for change that are of utmost importance. Effectively achieving the above goals will require a collective effort between academics and police practitioners, and the importance of research-practitioner partnerships cannot be stressed enough.