Situational and officer-based determinants of police coercion

William Terrill, Stephen D. Mastrofski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

236 Scopus citations


Using data collected as part of an observational study of the police in Indianapolis, Indiana, and St. Petersburg, Florida, this article examines police use of force to gain a better understanding of why the police resort to force. Like analyses from previous observational studies, the present inquiry borrows from both sociological and psychological theoretical orientations to explore various determinants of force. Unlike previous examinations, the universe of behaviors considered is substantially expanded to include numerous types or levels of force, ranging from verbal commands and threats to the use of impact methods. An ordered probit analysis of 3,116 police-suspect encounters shows that officers often respond to legal stimuli (e.g., suspects' resistance, safety concerns) when applying force. Countering previous findings, it found that officers were not more coercive toward disrespectful suspects. However, the analysis revealed that officers were also influenced by extra-legal factors. Male, nonwhite, poor, and younger suspects were all treated more forcefully, irrespective of their behavior. In addition, encounters involving inexperienced and less-educated officers resulted in increased levels of police force. The implications of these findings, for both policy and future research, are considered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)X-248
JournalJustice Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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