Behavioral Insights to Help Reduce Systemic Police Violence Towards African Americans in the US

Picture by Clay Banks on Unsplash

By Dan Poniachik

Introduction: Rotten Apples or a Rotten Barrel?

Among the rich countries of the world, the United States has the highest rate of killings by law enforcement officers per million inhabitants. In 2018, 992 people were shot and killed by the police, a rate of 9.6 per million people, and in 2019, as of the 13th of December, 864 people have died under these same circumstances (Washington Post, 2019). 

Tension has surmounted in the United States during the past months as several accounts of explicit police misbehavior, negligence, and direct violence have taken innocent people’s lives. This notion is coupled with structural barriers affecting minorities in the US, which have left them, sadly, overexposed to this kind of police violence. 

In general terms, following Worden (1996), theories about the causes of police misbehavior fall into three categories:

  • Sociological Theories: which focus on situational factors such as the conduct of suspects, the context of suspect-police encounters, and gender, race, and socioeconomic status
  • Psychological Theories, which emphasize officer attitudes and personality traits
  • Organizational Theories, which analyze the role of organizational culture 

Psychological theories underlie much of the intervention that police departments have adopted to control police violence, such as the New Orleans Police Department’s intervention. Sociological theories also have some empirical support. These factors, however, explain only about half of the variation among individuals. Unfortunately, most sociological factors that correlate with police violence are difficult to change, making them less useful in crafting police violence interventions. Organizational theories are the least well-tested but hold the most promise for reform because organizational factors may be more amenable to change than either officer attitudes or the structural characteristics of police-suspect interactions. 

According to the NGO Mapping Police Violence, Black people amounted to 25% of those killed despite being just 13% of the population, and a recent article shows how 1 in 1000 Black boys and men can expect to die at the hands of a police officer (Edwards et al., 2019). A Rutgers University study (Rutgers, 2018) mentions that unarmed Black Americans are five times more likely to be shot and killed by police than unarmed white Americans. A recent LA Times article compares leading causes of death for Black men in their mid-20s, concluding that police use of force is the seventh most likely cause of death among this group (see Table 1).

Table 1: Most Common Causes of Death for Young Black Males in the US

Source: Table extracted from Los Angeles Times (2019)

Police Insecurity and Social Psychology Threats

Four main sources of insecurities that police have, ways in which they might feel threatened in the context of police interactions, could eventually enhance the likelihood of police violence, as Carbado (2016) mentions. These insecurities derive from police officers’ apprehensions about (1) social dominance, (2) physical safety, (3) masculinity, and (4) racism and general stereotype threats. Police officers who feel threatened or vulnerable along these lines are more likely to engage in acts of violence than officers who do not face these threats. 

Social Dominance Threat

Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) refers to the notion that stability in hierarchical societies such as the United States is sustained through the endorsement of certain ideologies that reinforce this social order and minimize conflict (Pratto et al. 1994). 

According to Sidanius et al. (1994), police recruits were found to have significantly higher SDO levels and related attitudes than public defenders, for example. However, current research has shown that one might generally prefer a certain SDO scale in relation to the social position one is part of. In effect, research done in the past, has shown how white police academy recruits became increasingly more negative toward Blacks during their first 18 months as police (Teahan, 1975).

Social Dominance Policing maintains either consciously or unconsciously the officer’s sense of authority and control and the suspect’s vulnerability. Black men can potentially threaten this arrangement. If they assert their rights or question police authority, they breach the hierarchy that social dominance policing seeks to maintain. If Black men then would seek to challenge this order, the police might feel compelled to reinstate the previous order by performing an arrest to showcase the power difference and reinstate this hierarchy. 

Physical Safety Threat

A second threat pertains to the physical safety of police officers. Police officers worry about their lives, even in contexts that might not be intuitive. Some research shows that police officers perceive even the enforcement of traffic infractions as potentially a life-and-death scenario (Paoline & Terril, 2005). 

Masculinity Threat

A third insecurity police officers experience that could explain their use of violence against Black men is masculinity threat (Cooper, 2008). Masculinity can be seen as both a status (something one is perceived to have) and conduct (something one is perceived to perform). Moreover, masculinity is the normatively appropriate way to express a social identity as a man, and this suggests not only that one’s status as masculine can be lost and must therefore be regularly proven, but also that to lose one’s masculinity is to lose some of the benefits that unconsciously many men fear to lose (Erlich, 1990).

Bosson & Vandello (2009) find that men who had their masculinity threatened subsequently had more aggressive thoughts than those who had not been threatened. This line of research has been replicated in police officers. Following Goff and Martin (2012), officers with relatively high levels of concern about their masculinity used more severe force with Black, but not white suspects. 

It is also relevant to account that these men might also feel a masculinity threat when interacting with the police, thus feeling inclined to respond with violence. In sum, masculinity threat is another reason that the literature finds might account for why so many interactions between police officers and, in this case, Black men result in violence. 

Racism Threat 

The fourth type of threat that police officers experience can be understood as a racism threat. Police officers do not want to be perceived as racist, and some research finds that ironically this might actually produce the opposite outcome. This refers to the psychological mechanism of threats and not the ideology that certain officers could have. 

Behavioral-based Interventions to Reduce Police Misbehavior

The Social and Behavioral Sciences can certainly offer some “quick-wins” interventions, even to such a structural and systemic issue. At the very least, until there is widespread structural reform. Behavioral-based quick wins center around better accountability, as well as psychological and organizational improvements. 

Many law enforcement agencies are not using data in the way it could be leveraged towards better degrees of behavior. For example, it seems incongruent for the federal government to keep detailed records on the number of law enforcement officers killed or assaulted while in duty. However, there is limited data tracking from official agencies of citizens killed or assaulted by law enforcement. 

Often independent NGOs in the US are tracking these cases around the country, instead of the federal government, and this was especially true until 2014 when Congress approved an act that requires police departments to report the death of any person “who is detained, under arrest, or is in the process of being arrested,” and requires police departments to report the manner and circumstances of the death. This act requires police departments to self-report this number; however, according to Rushin (2016), less than 3% of police departments have so far voluntarily turned over this data to the FBI for aggregated purposes

Certainly, it is relevant to also weigh these indicators with other urban/rural, socioeconomic, and demographic ones, as police officers in big cities face traditionally higher levels of threat that might compel them to act aggressively than in a more rural setting. For example, as Rushin (2016) mentions, police officers in larger cities face a higher risk of injury in the line of duty than rural officers. 

A different kind of intervention is more psychological in nature. For example, the New Orleans Police Department developed using the work of retired University of Massachusetts, Amherst, psychologist Ervin Staub, who has applied his life’s work on what he has named “active bystander ship” to develop an officer-training program that emphasizes peer intervention. Known as “Ethical Policing Is Courageous” or EPIC, it reinforces the notion that it is courageous to step in in these cases and not do something that might be regretted afterward. Other more classical psychological interventions include pre employment screening, testing officers on the job, and anger management programs and coaching. 

Scrivner (1994) mentions psychologists’ role in the police force, acting as counselors and helping to recruit new cadets. This article mentions that psychologists were able to identify five different types of recruits that might be prone to violent behavior: officers with personality disorders, with previous job-related experience, officers who have behavioral problems at early stages of their career, officers who develop inappropriate policing styles and finally officers with personal problems. 

Education programs are also becoming ever more ubiquitous. Schlosser (2015) presents research at the University of Illinois and a novel diversity education program at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute designed to promote the fair and equitable policing practice. The program emphasizes increasing racial literacy and cultural empathy. It is named: Improving Policing in a Multiracial Society and works on awareness and multiculturality, increasing officers’ awareness of their own social identities and racial attitudes.

In essence, several interventions can help reduce systemic violence; at the very least until the root causes of structural inequalities are addressed. In the meantime, policymakers should definitely consider applying behavioral insights to reduce the acute problem of police violence.

Dan Poniachik is a 2020 MPA graduate from Columbia University. He has specialized in behavioral science and public policy, as well as social innovation and digital mental health. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.


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