Police Officer Use of Force Mindset and Street-Level Behavior

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Police Officer Use of
Force Mindset and
Street-Level Behavior
Eugene A. Paoline III
William Terrill
, and
Logan J. Somers
Police use of force has been the focus of a number of external assessments of the
occupation for over 50 years. Recent concerns have, once again, prompted calls for
additional research on the correlates of this behavior, especially as it relates to
officer use of force mindset. Relying on a framework articulated as part of a use
of force symposium of academics and practitioners, the current study utilizes survey
and behavioral data from officers in six police agencies to examine dimensions of use
of force mindset among officers, and the degree to which attitudinal mindset
influences use of force behavior. The implications for police scholarship and practice
are discussed.
officer mindset, police use of force, police attitudes, police behavior
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, Orlando, United States
School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Phoenix, United States
Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, Georgia Southern University, Savannah, United States
Corresponding Author:
Eugene A. Paoline III, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, 12805 Pegasus Drive,
Orlando, FL 32816, United States.
Email: eugene.paoline@ucf.edu
Police Quarterly
!The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10986111211025523
2021, Vol. 24(4) 547 –577
548 Police Quarterly 24(4)
As a defining feature of the occupational role (Bittner, 1970), and arguably the
most important and scrutinized discretionary decision, police use of force has
garnered a considerable amount of empirical and public attention. Efforts to
analytically model this behavior have relied on a variety of factors, including
individual-level officer characteristics, situational conditions of the encounter,
organizational features, and community or neighborhood dimensions
(Friedrich, 1980; Hine et al., 2018; Lawton, 2007; Lee, 2016; Lim & Lee,
2015; Rossler & Terrill, 2017; Rydberg & Terrill, 2010; Smith, 1986; Terrill &
Paoline, 2017; Terrill & Reisig, 2003; Worden, 1996). Cumulatively, these cor-
relates have helped shape inductive theoretical perspectives of use of force
behavior. Across studies of police use of force, situational and individual-level
officer factors have received the greatest attention, with situational factors
resulting in the most powerful (albeit, at times, mixed) predictors (Bolger,
2015; Klahm & Tillyer, 2010; Riksheim & Chermak, 1993; Terrill &
Mastrofski, 2002; Terrill & Paoline, 2017). While there are intuitive and theo-
retical assertions positing that characteristics (e.g., attitudes, demographics,
experience) of the officer matter (Muir, 1977), widespread empirical connections
to behavior have been lacking.
Continuing national concern over the relationship between the public and the
police have concentrated on a number of high-profile use of force incidents. In
an attempt to identify the central causes of deteriorated community trust and
needed police change, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing
(2015) convened a number of police practitioners, academics, civic leaders,
and community members. Central to the task force’s discussions was the way
in which police officers orient themselves (i.e., an individual-level factor) toward
their role and citizens. Specifically, the detached, aggressive, crime-fighter men-
tality was scrutinized and identified as a potential source of lost legitimacy. As
part of their recommendations for best practices, the task force concentrated on
changing officers’ occupational orientations, noting that “[l]aw enforcement
should embrace a guardian-rather than a warrior-mindset to build trust and
legitimacy both within agencies and with the public” (President’s Task Force
on 21st Century Policing, 2015, p. 1). Recent high-profile use of force encounters
(e.g., George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Breonna Taylor in Louisville,
Kentucky; Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin) have, once again, sparked
national outrage over the aggressive treatment of citizens, especially those of
color. Undoubtedly, another task force/commission will be charged with the
daunting assignment of providing an understanding as to why such events con-
tinue to take place, as well as needed changes.
The concern over officer outlooks and the consequences for the treatment of
citizens is not just a contemporary concern. Prior ex post facto independent
reviews of police performance throughout the 20th century were similarly
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