Public Vulnerability to the Police: A Quantitative Inquiry

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 12, December 2021, 1749 –1769.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
A Quantitative Inquiry
Michigan State University
University of Glasgow
Michigan State University
North Carolina State University
The recent protests regarding the state of policing in the United States clearly demonstrate that how the police do their job
creates a salient potential for harm to the public. This study applies a multidimensional paradigm of risk perception to quan-
tify evaluations of police-caused harm. Using data from a national (U.S.) convenience sample (n = 1,890) that oversampled
individuals who self-identified as black or Muslim, we tested whether these evaluations vary systematically (using confidence
intervals), whether they covary with police legitimacy (using structural equation modeling), and the extent to which that
covariance differs by demographic status (using multiple groups structural equation modeling). Our results suggest that black
and Muslim individuals evaluate police-caused harm differently than do majority group members (white and Christian) on
most, but not all, of the measured dimensions. We also find that those evaluations are predictive of trust and provide evidence
of some level of consistency across communities.
Keywords: policing; risk; legitimacy; race; religion
The fundamental purpose of law enforcement is to facilitate social cohesion through
deliberate actions that have the potential to cause harm (see Bottoms & Tankebe, 2017).
Ideally, this police-caused harm is limited to the situations that we—as a society—deem
acceptable, especially by restricting its application to those who can reasonably be argued
to be deserving (i.e., “criminals”). Problematically however, the history of policing has
been punctuated by high-profile incidents in which the deliberate actions of the police have
caused legally, socially, and even morally inappropriate harm. These harms have important
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest relevant to this work.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joseph A. Hamm, School of Criminal Justice
& Environmental Science and Policy Program, Michigan State University, Baker Hall, Room 557; East
Lansing, MI 48824; e-mail:
1008489CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211008489Criminal Justice and BehaviorHamm et al. /
consequences for the police-community relationship as has been poignantly demonstrated
by the social response to the deaths of Jakob Blake, Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Breonna
Taylor, Michael Brown, and countless others. This study builds upon the largely qualitative
body of scholarly knowledge that has sought to understand how communities think about
their vulnerability to the police. Specifically, we borrow a paradigm from research on risk
perception to quantify these evaluations and facilitate tests of (a) whether they differ for two
especially relevant minoritized communities (Black and Muslim) as compared to majority
communities, (b) whether variability in these evaluations explains attitudes toward the
police, and (c) whether the relations between these evaluations and police legitimacy vary
across communities.
Managing modern social systems is a question of managing harm (Giddens, 1991). Every
interaction between agentic actors (that is, individuals or groups that have the ability to act
deliberately) carries with it the possibility that either party could choose to act in a way that
would cause harm to the other. Some have gone so far as to refer to this as part of a “funda-
mental human dilemma” (Lind, 2001, p. 61) such that for a society to function effectively,
people must generally be willing to accept some level of potential for harm to each other
(Newton et al., 2018).
To facilitate this willingness, virtually every society has instituted some kind of system
of formal social control and policing typically features prominently (Bottoms & Tankebe,
2017). In most of these systems, law enforcement agents are granted considerable authority
and discretion to deploy in preventing and addressing what we refer to here as external
harms. These harms are external to the focal relationship between the trustor and the police
in that they arise from the deliberate actions of others. Thus, these harms include most
criminal and deviant behavior and range from specific interpersonal victimization to more
general problems like social disorder. In many ways, it is precisely these harms that the
police are designed to address (Mastrofski, 2004) and a considerable body of research sug-
gests that the public cares deeply about them (e.g., Jackson, 2006).
It is important, however, to recognize that empowering the police to address these exter-
nal harms creates its own potential for internal harms that arise from the deliberate actions
of the police. These harms not only arise from individual, officer-level decisions like who
to detain and the level of force to apply, but also from agency-level decisions like patrol
strategies, resource deployment, and personnel management. An equally considerable
body of evidence suggests that at least some communities also recognize and care deeply
about their potential for experiencing these harms (e.g., Cobbina, 2019). Much of this
work has focused on concrete, physical injury (e.g., Armaline et al., 2014; Thompson &
Lee, 2004), but there is also evidence to suggest that these harms can include more amor-
phous injuries like violations of what the public believes law enforcement should be.
Embrick (2015) goes so far as to argue that empowering the police at all “represents a reart-
iculation of slavery and Jim Crow era practices specifically designed to socially control
people of color” (p. 837).
We argue that internal and external harms are, therefore, distinct but that they are impor-
tantly connected such that decreasing the potential for one type of harm can increase the
potential for the other. For example, a community may seek to reduce its perceived potential

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT