A route to police abuse? The relation between police officers’ concern appearing racist and their attitude about use of force

A route to police abuse? The relation between police officers’ concern appearing racist and their attitude about use of force

Negative stereotypes of police officers can potentially undermine officer morale and public safety. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2019, Vol. 43, No. 5, 421-435

The Force of Fear: Police Stereotype Threat, Self-Legitimacy, and Support for Excessive Force


Rick Trinkner, Arizona State University
Erin M. Kerrison, University of California, Berkeley
Phillip Atiba Goff, John Jay College of Criminal Justice



Researchers have linked police officers’ concerns with appearing racist—a kind of stereotype threat—to racial disparities in the use of force. This study presents the first empirical test of the hypothesized psychological mechanism linking stereotype threat to police support for violence. We hypothesized that stereotype threat undermines officers’ self-legitimacy, or the confidence they have in their inherent authority, encouraging overreliance on coercive policing to maintain control. Officers (n = 784) from the patrol division of a large urban police force completed a survey in order to test this hypothesis. Respondents completed measures of stereotype threat, self-legitimacy, resistance to use of force policy, approval of unreasonable force, and endorsement of procedurally fair policing. Structural equation models showed that elevated stereotype threat was associated with lower self-legitimacy (b = -.15), which in turn was associated with more resistance to restrictions on force (b = -.17), greater approval of unreasonable force (b = -.31), and lower endorsement of fair policing (b = .57). These results reveal that concerns about appearing racist are actually associated with increased support for coercive policing—potentially further eroding public trust.


police, stereotype threat, self-legitimacy, use of force, procedural justice

Summary of the Research

“The ‘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” (p. 421).

“Why would concerns with appearing racist be linked to greater officer violence? Drawing from the stereotype threat literature, Richardson and Goff (2014) 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 (2014) 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 (i.e., de-policing). 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” (p. 421-422).

“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 (2014) 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” (p. 422).

“This study explored Richardson and Goff’s (2014) argument that the experience of racist police officer stereotype threat by police officers can promote coercive policing by reducing officers’ belief in the normative justifiability of their power, their self-legitimacy. Drawing on stereotype threat and police legitimacy literatures, we predicted that officers’ chronic concerns with appearing racist would be negatively associated with officers’ self-legitimacy. We further predicted officers’ self-legitimacy would be negatively associated with their resistance toward their department’s use of force policy and support for unreasonable force and positively associated with support for procedurally just policing tactics. Finally, we predicted that self-legitimacy would mediate the relationships between chronic stereotype threat and each of the beliefs about using coercion when interacting with community members. Our results provided broad support for these predictions with one exception. Self-legitimacy only partially mediated the relation between stereotype threat and resistance toward the use of force policy and support for unreasonable force” (p. 430-431).

“Few differences between White and non-White officers emerged. Both groups were equally likely to experience stereotype threat and had similar levels of self-legitimacy. Moreover, the association between stereotype threat and self-legitimacy did not vary between White and non-White officers. Taken together, these findings suggest race may not be as important to the experience of racist stereotype threat among officers as one might expect. Rather, the potential negative influence of stereotype threat should be of concern to all officers” (p. 431).

“Although officer race was not associated with the experience of stereotype threat or officers’ self-legitimacy, it was associated with coercive policing in unexpected ways. Generally, diversity within police departments has been positioned as a means to produce better policing, particularly with respect to the use of force and racial disparities in police outcomes. In contrast, in the present analysis White officers were less likely to support coercive policing in that they reported less resistance to the department’s use of force policy and less support for unreasonable force than non-White officers. We hesitate to draw any strong conclusions based on these results given that the relation between police officer diversity and quality of policing is a complex issue involving nuances that are likely not captured in the present research” (p. 431).

“Older officers were associated with higher self-legitimacy and less support for unreasonable uses of force. With respect to the latter finding, it is noteworthy that after self-legitimacy, age was the strongest predictor of support for unreasonable uses of force. This is not too surprising given the negative association between age and violence once individuals reach their 20s; however, it does suggest that older officers may be especially well positioned within a department to act as role models for younger officers, both as exemplars of the normative authority of police officers and as a source of restraint” (p. 431).

“Interestingly, officer experience was actually associated with lower levels of self-legitimacy. … It is not immediately obvious to us why this finding would emerge. Officers are often confronted with situations in which they need to break the law in order to uphold the moral values of society (e.g., the so-called “Dirty Harry” problem) or the opposite (e.g., enforce laws that are morally ambiguous in society). Such events may serve to eat away at their self- legitimacy over time. On the other hand, officers often report that they routinely deal with the same ‘trouble makers’ while on patrol. Such experiences could serve as a reminder that regardless of their actions, there is little they can do to fix the problems in their community thereby reducing their confidence in their authority. Alternatively, the current sample was largely made up of patrol officers. It might be the case that more experienced officers who have not obtained higher ranks in their career have had their self-legitimacy eroded over the years as they have been passed up for promotion” (p. 431).

“[F]emale officers were more likely to support procedurally just policing than male officers. On its face, this would support calls from some scholars that a greater infusion of female police officers would increase the quality of policing. This is especially important with respect to procedural justice, as it has been positioned as one of the major reforms to improve relations between law enforcement and communities. However, research on gender differences in policing styles is often mixed with some showing few differences between men and women” (p. 431)

“Cynicism has long been identified as a problem in policing. The present results echo this work, finding that more cynical officers were less likely to see themselves as legitimate authorities, more likely to resist the department’s use of force policy, and less likely to endorse a procedurally just style of policing. That cynical officers are less confident in their moral authority as police officers is hardly surprising, given a core component of officer cynicism is apathy toward the job. Moreover, cynical officers are more likely to distrust the public and engage with community members in hostile ways. In this respect, one would not expect them to support the department’s use of force policy or engaging with the public in a fair and respectful manner to the same degree as less cynical officers” (p. 431).

“[O]fficers’ perceptions of risk in their daily duties was positively associated with both self-legitimacy and resistance to the department’s use of force policy. It seems that officers who believe their job is more dangerous are more likely to be confident in their authority as agents of the law and be more likely to believe that interactions require more force than dictated by department policy. The relation between risk perceptions and self-legitimacy is consistent with Bradford and Quinton’s (2014) argument that self-legitimacy can be enhanced by the belief that officers represent the ‘thin blue line’ between social order and societal chaos. Officers ascribing to this ideology are likely to see their job as especially risky as they alone are there to protect the public from dangerous criminals that want to cause harm. On this account, they occupy a special position in society, imbued with moral authority given their status as protectors of the public trust. At the same time, one would expect that such officers may balk at rules and policies restricting their ability to meet that dangerous world head on with a superior level of force” (p. 431-432).

Translating Research into Practice

“These results raise the possibility of a particularly vicious cycle of stereotype threat, police force, and public trust. Coercive policing strategies that feature aggression and dominance have been shown to erode community members’ trust in the police over time. Police departments depend on community trust and cooperation in order to manage social disorder and crime effectively. Because stereotype threat is more likely to be activated when interacting with non-White community members, concerns with appearing racist may be associated with racial disparities in unnecessary police violence, further eroding trust within communities that can least afford it. In other words, it is easy to imagine how an erosion in public trust could lead to increased unreasonable force, further eroding public trust. Importantly, this cycle could persist regardless of which direction the causal arrow points (e.g., from stereotype threat to unreasonable force or from unreasonable force to stereotype threat)” (p. 432)

“When the public discusses stereotypes within the police context it is typically focused on the prejudice officers bring with them while on patrol. There is no question such stereotypes exist. However, this discourse should be expanded with the recognition that the police–community relationship is bidirectional in nature. encompassing not only the stereotypes that officers hold about community members but also stereotypes that community members hold about officers. As shown here, officers’ concerns about the latter category are tied to their beliefs about the appropriate way to interact with community members. This can potentially be the difference between a mutually beneficial encounter that increases the trust of both parties or a coercive encounter in which negative stereotypes are reinforced” (p. 432).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Given the scant research on stereotype threat among police, there are multiple areas that need further examination. First, researchers should examine stereotype threat among police officers at the situational level, rather than at the chronic/dispositional level (as was done here). This level of analysis would make experimental manipulation more feasible, which would help to establish the causal direction among stereotype threat, self-legitimacy, and coercive policing. Moreover, this would allow for a greater examination of the factors that can initiate stereotype threat among officers as they go about their daily activities, while at the same time shedding light on how officers may respond to stereotype threatening events” (p. 432).

“[I]f the relations revealed in the present article prove robust, it will be important to examine ways to reduce the negative influence of stereotype threat on officers. … Another possibility is to examine the fairness of the police department. Stereotype threat represents a threat to officers’ identities and the democratic values underlying the police profession. Organizational fairness is a means by which institutions can impart their values onto workers. Hence, increasing organizational fair- ness within the police department may reduce apprehension over appearing racist by buttressing the democratic values that such apprehension undermines” (p. 432).

“[F]uture research should examine the degree to which stereotype threat depresses individuals’ use of social skills to achieve their interaction goals. In particular, the depletion of cognitive resources may undermine officers’ social “soft skills,” or the ability to interact productively with others who hold interest positions that are different from their own” (p. 432).

“Over the years, multiple mechanisms have been proposed to explain stereotype threat effects. The present results introduce an additional mechanism that may explain such effects, particularly when examining stereotype threat in contexts where there are clear and strong power differentials as is the case in police–community interactions. However, the present analysis indicates other mechanisms should be explored in the policing context given that relations among stereotype threat, resistance to policy, and unreasonable force were only partially mediated by self-legitimacy. Perhaps there are other aspects of police officers’ identity beyond their role as moral authorities that are undermined by stereotype threat” (p. 432-433).


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