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Fear of Being Branded Racist Increases Police Support for Excessive Force

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Members of the New York City Police Department attend their police academy graduation ceremony on March 30th, 2017.

It’s a tense time for racial relations, particularly when it comes to relationships between minority communities and the police departments that patrol them. Many officers are acutely aware of the stereotype of the racist cop, and are concerned that they may be perceived as treating people differently because of the color of their skin.

It turns out that worry may inspire poorer policing, including greater use of unreasonable force. New research finds evidence of “a particularly vicious cycle of stereotype threat, police force, and public trust,” in which officers who feel their legitimacy has been questioned feel justified in resorting to coercive tactics. This was true of both black and white officers, according to the study, published in the journal Law and Human Behavior.

Police are typically trained to use their moral authority as peace officers to resolve conflicts,” lead author Rick Trinkner of Arizona State University said in announcing the findings. “But if that moral authority is called into question, they may feel they have limited tools to gain compliance, leading to more harmful actions with potentially disastrous results.”

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