WASHINGTON — The “racist police officer” stereotype has been in existence for decades, and certainly doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Of course, most police officers are not racist, but a new study from the American Psychological Association finds that this stereotype may lead to more forceful and coercive police work, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for officers who are worried about appearing racist.
“Officers who were highly concerned about appearing racist reported lower confidence in their moral authority, and that led to them reporting more support for using coercive policing while on the job,” explains study co-author Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff in a statement. “Interestingly, both white and non-white officers were equally likely to be concerned about appearing racist. The potential negative influence of stereotype threats such as the ‘racist police officer’ should be a concern to all officers and communities.”
Goff and his team say they were motivated to conduct this study because of current racial tensions in the United States, and hoped to better understand how negative stereotypes influence how police officers go about their business and deal with the public.
The research team studied 784 patrol officers and sergeants from the patrol division in a large urban police force over eight weeks, attending roll calls at each station in the department to hand out surveys. The respondents were 80% male, almost all patrol officers, and a little over half were caucasian. The officers were in their early 40s and had about 14 years of experience, on average.
The survey had questions about stereotype threats, self-legitimacy, resistance to their department’s use of force policy, and approval of unreasonable force. Some examples include: “How much do you worry that people may think of you as racist because you are a police officer?”; “How justifiable are violations of the department’s use of force policies?”; and “How much would you approve of a police officer striking a community resident who had said vulgar or obscene things to the officer?”
The surveys also asked officers about the importance of explaining their actions to the community (e.g., “How much of a waste of time do you think it is to explain your decision to community members?”).
Each response was measured on a scale of one (not at all) to five (always).
“We found what appears to be a vicious cycle: The more an officer was worried about being perceived as racist, the less confidence they had in their authority and the more likely they were to condone abusive policing tactics,” says lead author Dr. Rick Trinkner. “The same was true for officers who reported being more cynical about their line of work.”
Additionally, researchers concluded that younger male officers were more likely to use excessive force than more seasoned male police officers or female officers. Female officers were also much more likely to support working with the public in a just and transparent manner, leading researchers to theorize that “toxic masculinity” may play a role in many abusive police incidents.
Ultimately, the study’s authors say the relationship between police and the public is very complicated, and requires additional research and attention to truly guarantee public safety.
“Conversations about police officers and stereotypes typically focus on the prejudices that officers bring with them on patrol, but this discourse needs to expand to include the beliefs that officers have about themselves and how that affects their work and relationships within their communities,” Goff comments.