Using data from a systematic social-observation study of police in Indianapolis, IN, and St. Petersburg, FL, this research examined the influence of neighborhood context on the level of force police exercised during police-suspect encounters.
Twelve beats in each city were selected for the study, and observers were assigned to ride with the officers assigned to these beats. The beats for each site were selected to closely match the degree of socioeconomic distress (sum of percentage of poverty, percentage of female-headed families, percentage of unemployed). The sampling design omitted police beats with the lowest levels of socioeconomic distress (the most affluent districts). In the summer months of 1996 and 1997, trained graduate and honor undergraduate students served as field observers. As the dependent variable, "police force" was defined as "acts that threaten or inflict physical harm on suspects." The independent variables consisted of neighborhood-level variables and encounter-level variables. The study found that police officers were significantly more likely to use higher levels of force when suspects were encountered in disadvantaged neighborhoods and neighborhoods with higher homicide rates; situational factors (for example, suspect resistance) and officers characteristics (e.g., age, education, and training) were also factors related to the police use of force. The study also found that the effect of the suspect's race was mediated by neighborhood context. The fact that officers were more forceful in areas with high levels of disadvantage and crime, irrespective of suspect behavior at the police-suspect encounter level, suggests the need to emphasize departmental values and to conduct open discussions with officers about the importance of accountability in all officer actions. Officers must understand that force must be based in legal justifications for its use. 2 tables, appended supplementary tables, 13 notes, and 68 references