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Testing the impact of citizen characteristics and demeanor on police officer behavior in potentially violent encounters

Lois James (College of Nursing, Washington State University, Spokane, Washington, USA)
Stephen James (Sleep and Performance Research Center, Washington State University, Spokane, Washington, USA)
Bryan Vila (Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Washington State University, Spokane, Washington, USA)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 12 February 2018

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Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to investigate whether citizen characteristics (race/ethnicity and attire) or demeanor predicted how officers interacted in simulation scenarios that could turn violent.

Design/methodology/approach

Controlled-laboratory experiments were conducted during which police participants (n=50) responded to equivalent numbers of black, white, and Hispanic individuals in multiple branching video scenarios in a use-of-force simulator. Within these scenarios, the attire of on-screen individuals was varied (“street” or “business” clothing) as was their demeanor – individuals were either friendly or confrontational. Each scenario had the potential to end peaceably or turn violent, depending on how the officers treated people in the simulator.

Findings

Multi-level modeling revealed that neither the race/ethnicity nor the attire of on-screen individuals predicted how officers interacted with them. However, the demeanor of on-screen individuals did – officers were significantly more likely to verbally escalate and end up with a deadly outcome when faced with confrontational individuals (f=3.96; df=1, 558; p<0.05).

Research limitations/implications

These findings offer important new insight into how fairly officers interact with people during routine encounters that have the potential to turn violent, and what this means for perceptions of police legitimacy, procedural justice, and allegations of racial bias.

Originality/value

This is the first laboratory study to test the impact of citizen characteristics and demeanor on how officers escalate and de-escalate encounters.

Keywords

Citation

James, L., James, S. and Vila, B. (2018), "Testing the impact of citizen characteristics and demeanor on police officer behavior in potentially violent encounters", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 41 No. 1, pp. 24-40. https://doi.org/10.1108/PIJPSM-11-2016-0159

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited