Assessing Public Perceptions of Police Use-of-Force: Legal Reasonableness and Community Standards



How do public expectations of police use-of-force align with the strict professional and legal guidelines under which police officers train and operate? This is a largely unexamined but salient question in the use-of-force literature and is important given the ongoing public discourse regarding police use-of-force, community standards, and perceived gaps between the two. This study focuses on two main research questions: Are substantial portions of the public predisposed to disapprove of legally reasonable police use-of-force? If so, what are the principal correlates of those disapproving attitudes? We analyze responses (n = 20,781) to General Social Survey (GSS) questions from 1990 through 2018 entailing police use-of-force scenarios that are prima facie legally reasonable. We find a substantial proportion of GSS respondents have expressed their disapproval of legally reasonable, justifiable police uses-of-force over the entire period, and such disapproval has increased over time. Causes and policy implications of this misalignment are discussed.

Justice Quarterly, 37(5)
Scott M. Mourtgos
Scott M. Mourtgos
Ph.D. Candidate

I am a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Utah and a National Institute of Justice LEADS scholar. I study policing and criminal justice policy. I am particularly interested in public perceptions of police use-of-force and the criminal justice system, investigative techniques in sexual assault cases, and crime deterrence policy.