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Excerpted from: Rick Trinkner, Erin M. Kerrison and Phillip Atiba Goff, The Force of Fear: Police Stereotype Threat, Self-legitimacy, and Support for Excessive Force, 43 Law and Human Behavior 421 (October 2019) (References) (Full Document)


TrinknerKerrisonGoffThe "racist police officer" stereotype is one of the most enduring stereotypes of law enforcement in America, irrespective of officer race. A simple Internet search reveals millions of hits highlighting racism in law enforcement. Links between racism and policing can be seen throughout our cultural narratives, newspapers, academic books, and media portrayals. Over the last few years this social representation has become even more salient amid continuing racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system and a seemingly unending string of highly publicized controversial incidents involving police officers shooting (sometimes unarmed) non-White community members, particularly young Black men. Despite this salience, relatively little is known about how awareness of this stereotype influences officers and how they approach members of the community. This article examines how officers' concerns with appearing racist plays an ironic and underexplored role in support for coercive and aggressive policing.

Why would concerns with appearing racist be linked to greater officer violence? Drawing from the stereotype threat literature, Richardson and Goff argue that concerns about confirming the "racist officer" stereotype diminishes officers' sense of moral authority, resulting in a greater reliance on coercive tactics to establish and maintain control when policing individuals, especially within non-White communities. Their hypothesized link between the undermining of officers' moral authority and greater support for coercive tactics is consistent with recent criminological work linking officers' self-legitimacy--that is, their confidence in the power imbued within their role as police officers--and support for nonaggressive policing strategies. Richardson and Goff's perspective directly contradicts the arguments from those who stipulate that officers' fear of being caught engaging in purportedly racist behavior leads to the withdrawal of police officers from their duties. If true, then the undermining of self-legitimacy due to stereotype threat is not only problematic to officers and their institutions, but also presents pernicious risks to the communities they police.

However, to date there has been almost no research examining the relation between officers' concerns over appearing racist and support for coercive policing. Moreover, no study has empirically examined Richardson and Goff's argument that officers' sense of moral authority mediates this relation. The goal of the present article is to address this gap by testing their argument using data from a survey of patrol officers and sergeants in a large urban police department. In doing so, we also provide the first theoretical integration of the stereotype threat and police legitimacy literatures.

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The present study reveals the first empirical evidence that officers' concern with appearing racist is associated with their attitudes about unreasonable police use of force and the rules that govern it. This suggests a previously underexplored route to police abuse worthy of further scientific and practical exploration. Additionally, by integrating the literatures on stereotype threat and police legitimacy, this research suggests a new theoretical landscape for exploration by providing evidence that stereotyping the moral character of a group can be associated with immoral behavior. Most importantly, however, the present research emphasizes the findings of a recent National Academies of Science consensus report: We know too little about what leads to abuses of police power, and psychological science has yet to engage the issue as seriously as it can.

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