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Examining police use of force:a smaller agency perspectiveWilliam TerrillSchool of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing,Michigan, USAFredrik H. LeinfeltNorth Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota, USA, andDae-Hoon KwakSchool of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing,Michigan, USAAbstractPurpose – This research seeks to examine police use of force from a smaller police agency perspectivein comparison with what is known from previous research using data from larger-scale agencies.Design/methodology/approach – Using police use of force reports involving arrests (n ¼ 3,264)over a three-year period (2002-2004) from a small police agency located in the upper-Midwest, thisstudy utilizes descriptive and multivariate analyses to examine how and why officers use force.Findings – While officers resorted to physical force (beyond handcuffing) in 18 percent of the arrestencounters, the majority of force is located at the lower end of the force continuum (e.g. soft handcontrol). However, unlike officer behavior, much of the resistant behavior displayed by suspects istoward the upper end of the spectrum (e.g. defensive/active). The results also indicate that the mostpowerful predictor of force is the presence and level of suspect resistance presented to officers. Thesefindings are placed within the context of prior work.Research limitations/implications – Since the current study relies on official data from a singlepolice agency, the findings come with caution in terms of generalizability.Originality/value – This study contributes to the literature on police use of force by examiningeveryday force usage in a small police department.Keywords Policing, Crimes, Control, Law, United States of AmericaPaper type Research paperIntroductionThe ability to use force has long been considered a crucial element of the police role(Bittner, 1970). Researchers, policy makers, police administrators, as well as the publicat large, all profess a keen interest in the manner in which police officers go aboutapplying varying forms of forceful control. Not surprisingly, the amount of inquirygenerated over the years is substantial, ranging from looking at how often officers useforce (Adams, 1995), to the varying types of force used (Klinger, 1995), to officerattitudes toward force (Westley, 1970), to the use of excessive (Klockars, 1995) or lethal(Fyfe, 1979) force, to exploring reasons why officers use force (Worden, 1995). SuchThe current issue and full text archive of this journal is available atwww.emeraldinsight.com/1363-951X.htmThe points-of-view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent theofficial position of the police department from which the data are drawn.Examiningpolice use offorce57Received 17 May 2006Revised 30 November 2006Accepted 19 May 2007Policing: An International Journal ofPolice Strategies & ManagementVol. 31 No. 1, 2008pp. 57-76q Emerald Group Publishing Limited1363-951XDOI 10.1108/13639510810852576investigation has consequently led to a substantial degree of knowledge surroundinghow and why police officers use force. While there are many strengths associated withthe extant research, there are also some notable limitations. For instance, much of theprior work focuses on mid-to-large sized police agencies. Lacking in the literature arestudies that examine force usage in smaller police departments. Moreover, much of theprior work in this area comes from data collected over a relatively short period of time(e.g. several weeks, over a summer, one year).The current inquiry seeks to shed light on the application of force from a smallerpolice agency perspective using data gathered over a three-year period (2002-2004)from the River City Police Department (RCPD), which employs 50 officers in a town ofapproximately 33,000 citizens[1]. In particular, we examine the extent and nature ofpolice use of force as it relates to suspect resistance, variation in force and resistancebehaviors, and numerous situational factors posited to predict the severity of force. Ourprimary purpose is to determine how and why officers use force in comparison to whatis known from previous studies using data from larger scale police agencies over arelatively short time frame.Prior workWith some exception (e.g. Westley, 1953), the first wave of scholarly attention towardpolice use of force began during the 1960s. Initially, much of the research was directedtoward excessive (Reiss, 1968) and lethal force (Fyfe, 1988), including cases of citizenskilled by police in metropolitan areas (Sherman and Cohen, 1986), homicide by police(Sherman and Langworthy, 1979), and racial disparities in police-involved shootings(Geller and Scott, 1992). Since this early work, researchers have broadened their focus bystudying the nature of everyday force usage, most notably less-lethal force that does notnecessarily reach a level of inappropriateness (Garner et al., 2002; Terrill and Mastrofski,2002). This latter work is generally driven by the notion that understanding all forms offorce, not just excessive or lethal, is crucial within the context of Bittner’s (1970) assertionthat the defining aspect of the police role revolves around the capacity to use force. Thepresent inquiry follows in this tradition. As such, we begin by reviewing previousresearch that has primarily centered on examining the extent of less-lethal force used byofficers in the course of their duties, variation in the types of force applied, and factorsaffecting the likelihood of force. Where appropriate, we also discuss findings from studiesthat have incorporated the extent and variation found in suspect resistant behaviors,along with the role suspect resistance plays in prompting police use of force behavior.Prevalence in force and resistanceNumerous studies have been conducted over the years concerning the nature andfrequency of police use of force. Inquiries relying on official records, as well asobservational studies, have formed the basis for much of what we know about theprevalence of force usage[2]. Overall, the findings indicate that force is a somewhat rareoccurrence, although there is a degree of variation found from one study to another[3].Studies relying on official data most frequently compute force usage based on theextent to which officers rely on force as part of the arrest process. Croft and Austin’s(1987) analysis of two years of arrest data from Rochester and


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