Study finds race plays key factor in police use of force

ASU researcher co-authors report that quantifies whether race plays a role

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detain a suspect

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police detain a suspect during a 2009 New Years Eve event. First Night Charlotte 2009 photo courtesy Creative Commons: James WIllamor/


A new study looks at the role race plays when it comes to how police use force. It found white officers use greater force on black suspects than they do on white suspects. Black officers, meanwhile, were found to use similar force against both black and white suspects. The study, recently published in the British Journal of Criminology is co-authored by an Arizona State University criminology professor.

“Much of what’s purported to be known about the role of race and force has been almost universally anecdotal in nature,” said professor William Terrill, a police use of force expert with the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “Hence, we examined data from seven mid-to-large police agencies to look at suspect and officer race in a more comprehensive manner by examining both resistance on the part of suspects and force on the part of the police.”

The study reviewed 6,000 use of force cases in seven cities over a two-year span: Albuquerque, New Mexico; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Knoxville, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon and St. Petersburg, Florida. Only data from male police officers and male citizens were used to remove outside variables such as female suspects and other races.

Researchers also examined whether the amount of resistance shown by the suspect was different depending on whether the officer was black or white.

“We found that both black and white suspects offered similar levels of resistance toward the police irrespective of the officer’s race,” Terrill said.  

While the data suggests possible bias on the part of white officers when it comes to the use of force, Terrill says the study by no means proves it.

“This is not, in any way, to say that police officers are ‘racist,’ but it is to say that race cannot be dismissed,” noted Terrill. “As our findings demonstrate, white officers used greater force on black suspects compared to whites. Hence, race is playing some sort of factor.” 

William Terrill

William Terrill is a professor in the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Photo courtesy Michigan State University.

The study, “Race and the Police Use of Force Encounter in the United States,” was published Dec. 26 in the British Journal of Criminology. University of Central Florida criminal justice professors Eugene Paoline and Jacinta Gau authored the study along with Terrill. It is based on data from the Assessing Police Use of Force Policy and Outcomes Project funded in 2005 by the National Institute of Justice, a research unit of U.S. Department of Justice.

“There are no easy solutions to improving relations between police and communities, such as hiring more black officers or simply training white officers on non-biased policing,” Terrill pointed out. “Police departments have to at least be open to the possibility that some of the disparity in police use of force behavior may indeed be based on race such as how officers view black suspects and the lens in which they view potential danger.”