U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

Situational and Officer-Based Determinants of Police Coercion

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 19 Issue: 2 Dated: June 2002 Pages: 215-248
William Terrill; Stephen D. Mastrofski
Date Published
June 2002
34 pages

Using data collected as part of an observational study of the police in Indianapolis, Indiana, and St. Petersburg, Florida, this study examined police use of force for the purpose of determining why the police resort to force.


Similar to analyses of observational data collected in the 1960's by Reiss (1968) and Friedrich (1977) and Worden's (1995) analysis of data from the Police Services Study from the 1970's, the current study borrowed from both sociological and psychological theoretical orientations to explore various determinants of use of force. Unlike previous studies, the universe of behaviors considered in the current study was substantially expanded to include numerous types or levels of force, which ranged from verbal commands and threats to the use of impact methods. Observers noted officers' encounter with the public. Contacts were recorded with approximately 6,500 citizens in Indianapolis and 5,500 citizens in St. Petersburg, including events that ranged from less than a minute to several hours. Data on officers' characteristics and attitudes were obtained from in-person interviews. An ordered probit analysis of 3,116 police-suspect encounters showed that officers often responded to legal stimuli (e.g., suspects' resistance, safety concerns) when applying force. The study contradicted previous findings in finding that officers were not more coercive toward disrespectful suspects; however, the analysis found that officers were influenced by extra-legal factors. Male, nonwhite, poor, and younger suspects were all treated more forcefully, irrespective of their behavior. In addition, encounters that involved inexperienced and less-educated officers resulted in increased levels of police use of force. The implications of these finding for both policy and future research are discussed. 4 tables and 56 references