Public Support for the Punishment of Police Use of Force Errors: Evidence of Ideological Divergence and Convergence

Published date01 September 2018
Date01 September 2018
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
Public Support for
2018, Vol. 21(3) 358–386
! The Author(s) 2018
the Punishment of
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611118766647
Police Use of Force
Errors: Evidence of
Ideological Divergence
and Convergence
Shefali V. Patil1
It is widely believed that the public is ideologically divided with regard to law enforce-
ment. Drawing on omission bias research, I challenge this assumption, arguing
that such polarization is contingent on the type of use of force error officers
commit. Three experimental studies demonstrate that, regardless of the suspect’s
race, liberals are more likely than conservatives to punish a false-positive error
(e.g., shooting an unarmed suspect), because they attribute responsibility to
causes within the officer’s control. However, liberals and conservatives are
equally unlikely to support punishing a false-negative error (failing to shoot an
armed suspect), regardless of whether the suspect harms a fellow patrol officer or
third-party civilian. Furthermore, bipartisan tolerance of false-negative errors is
especially high among both liberals and conservatives if the withholding of force
was intended to preserve the suspect’s life. Implications for theory and public
policy are discussed.
political ideologies, use of force errors, public punitiveness toward officers
1McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Shefali V. Patil, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin, 2110 Speedway, CBA 4.258,
Austin, TX 78712, USA.

Researchers have long found that the American public is deeply polarized in its
support for law enforcement, with political liberals tending to be less, and
conservatives more, supportive and trusting (Hindelang, 1974; Huang &
Vaughn, 1996; Zamble & Annesley, 1987). Indeed, a recent Pew Research
Center study found that while only 33% of U.S. liberals rated officers as
“very warm,” 74% of conservatives rated officers the same (Fingerhut, 2017).
Political psychologists argue that such ideological divides emerge because this
institution that enforces the law more closely embodies conservative values of
authority and order than it does liberal values of egalitarianism and openness
(Braithwaite, 1998; Davis & Silver, 2004; Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009).
Given that we tend to be more punitive toward those whom we do not trust
and less punitive toward those we do (Kramer, 1999; Tetlock, Vieider, Patil, &
Grant, 2013), it is further presumed that the public will react in ideologically
predictable ways in the aftermath of heavily publicized shootings of unarmed
civilians: Liberals will endorse more punitive measures toward officers for
allegedly using excessive force, whereas conservatives will endorse less punitive
measures that give officers the benefit of the doubt (Chammah, 2016).
However, this widely held belief that the public is ideologically divided in its
reactions to officer actions rests on the assumption that the only type of use of
force (UOF) error that officers make are false positives (i.e., taking lethal action
against an unarmed suspect). Rather, robust theories on the “omission bias”
suggest that false positives comprise only one of two ways in which people can
harm others; people can also commit a false negative in which they fail to act
(Baron, 1994). In law enforcement, failing to use force against an armed suspect
would constitute a false-negative UOF error, which is not uncommon. For
example, in West Virginia, according to the agency’s chief, a cop endangered
the lives of fellow officers and other citizens on scene when he refused to shoot a
threatening suspect who had a pistol in his hands, resulting in his firing
(Lawrence & Kaste, 2016).
false-negative UOF errors challenges the assumption that the public is always
ideologically divided in how they react to officer behaviors. Researchers study-
ing the omission bias have found that people tend to judge harmful commissions
(i.e., taking action that causes a false-positive error) as worse than harmful
omissions (i.e., failing to take action that causes a false-negative error) (Baron
& Ritov, 1994; Haidt & Baron, 1996). For example, studies have found that
people tend to judge a physician’s active involvement in the euthanasia of a
severely burned patient more harshly than passive involvement (Sugarman,
1986). Likewise, people tend to judge deaths caused by giving a child a vaccine
to be more morally reprehensible than deaths caused by the failure to vaccinate
(Ritov & Baron, 1990). Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, psychol-
ogists have found that people’s protected values, which they are especially

Police Quarterly 21(3)
unwilling to compromise, tend to more strongly predict how they judge an
individual’s actions than omissions (Baron & Ritov, 2009). In other words,
people tend to hold stronger absolute prohibitions against certain actions than
they do against inactions.
Applying this omission bias research to the present context suggests that the
degree to which ideological differences emerge in the public’s reactions to officer
actions should depend on the type of UOF error committed. That is, because
people’s protected values tend to be more predictive of their reactions to errors
of commission (Baron & Ritov, 2009), we should observe ideological divergence
when an officer makes a false-positive UOF error, such that people respond in
ways that are consistent with their values. Because liberals tend to emphasize the
protection of less powerful and disadvantaged groups (Chambers, Schlenker, &
Collisson, 2013; Skitka & Tetlock, 1993), and conservatives tend to emphasize
security, order, and the wielding of authority (Altemeyer, 1981; Feather, 1979;
Janoff-Bulman, 2009), liberals should be more punitive toward officers who use
their authoritative power to take unnecessary action against a less powerful
party (a civilian), whereas conservatives should be less punitive, as they
are likely more averse to second-guessing officer actions against a potentially
dangerous suspect. Furthermore, I expect liberals to be particularly punitive
toward an officer who commits a false-positive error if the harmed suspect is
Black as opposed to White. Since liberals, regardless of their race, are more
likely than conservatives to believe that Blacks are systematically discriminated
against (Harrison, Kravitz, Mayer, Leslie, & Lev-Arey, 2006; Sidanius, Pratto,
& Bobo, 1996), their values in protecting these demographic groups should drive
them to be particularly punitive toward officers who use inappropriate force
against them. But, to the degree that people’s protected values become less
potent when judging errors of omission, these ideological divides should be
attenuated when an officer commits a false-negative UOF error. In other
words, as people are less likely to have absolute prohibitions against omissions
(Baron, 1994), we should observe both sides of the ideological divide as rela-
tively less punitive toward an officer who harms others by failing to take action.
In addition, I hypothesize that the reason why the public will exhibit
ideological polarization when officers commit a false-positive as opposed to a
false-negative error is that errors of commission likely accentuate ideological
differences in how people attribute responsibility. Omission bias scholars have
argued that one of the reasons why people tend to be more punitive toward acts
of commission is that they consider an actor to be more individually responsible
for acting than not acting, the latter of which makes salient other external causes
for the harm that occurs (Hilton & Slugoski, 1986; Kelley, 1973). More simply,
from an observer’s perspective: “Omissions may result from ignorance, and
commissions usually do not; commissions usually involve more malicious
motives and intentions than the corresponding omissions; and commissions

usually involve more effort, itself a sign of stronger intentions” (Spranca, Minsk,
& Baron, 1991, p. 76).
Applying these findings to officer UOF errors, we should observe that, in the
case of a false positive, the public would make more internal attributions,
which assign responsibility to qualities the officer should be able to control
(e.g., competence, bias), rather than external attributions, which locate respon-
sibility in uncontrollable qualities of the environment (e.g., bad luck, unfavor-
able circumstances). Yet, these patterns should arise only to the degree that
the public is ideologically predisposed to perceiving the officer as responsible.
That is, recent research has found that people’s attributions depend on whether
an actor’s behaviors are consistent with the observers’ core values. Observers
tend to make stronger internal attributions for targets that engage in value-
inconsistent behaviors (assigning responsibility to the individual), and stronger
external attributions for targets that engage in value-consistent behaviors
(deflecting responsibility away from the individual) (Morgan, Mullen, &
Skitka, 2010). As such, liberals should be more likely to make internal attribu-
tions for officers’ false-positive errors, because such actions clash with their core
values of minimizing the authoritative use of power against the less powerful.
By contrast, conservatives should be less likely to make internal attributions,

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