Police Discretionary Use of Force in America: The Black Man’s Abyss

Thinking back to my formative years growing up in "Africa," I can't imagine that in 2020 I will hear from so many Americans...

Police Discretionary Use of Force in America: The Black Man’s Abyss[1]

 Thinking back to my formative years growing up in “Africa,” I can’t imagine that in 2020 I will hear from so many Americans, whites and blacks alike, that policing  people of color in America is equated to the ‘Venus  fly trap’.  From the criminal justice system and the nation’s history is essentially one of injustice—that America at its heart is racist, sexist, and undeserving of respect. Perhaps, you might have a hard time imagining that as well. But 2020 ushered in transforming incidents of police brutality in the midst of a global pandemic that might potentially upend policing in America. If you could make a difference in how the Police in America interact with people of color, what will you do? The answer to this question is mixed. Besides, it largely depends on whom you ask and their ontological perspective.

In this piece, I reviewed the leading experts’ literature on police use of force in America, an issue that has captivated and offended my sensibilities. I examined the decision point and an officer’s discretion, to understand the factors at play that can influence an officer’s decision to use force.  On May 25, 2020, the late Mr. George Floyd, an unarmed black African American male, was murdered by four former white police officers captured by a bystander video. The issues surrounding police use of force is not a new phenomenon in America. However, the incident encounter by the police officers that led to the death of Mr. Floyd reignited debates on this controversial policing practice and has become a buzz word. Also, it has attracted the interest of many scholars, researchers, and criminal justice professionals. Those who are interested in studying the police have focused their efforts on pertinent issues such as the decision points and police use of force, less-lethal (non-deadly) force, the neighborhood context, officer’s characteristics, citizen interaction with the police, race, organizational characteristics and community-based influence to mention but a few.

Police use of force has been defined as “acts that threatens or inflict physical harm on the suspect” (see Terrill & Reisig, 2003: 299). The limitation of this definition lies in the omission of verbal forms of force, which entails commands and threats. Such types of force are by nature coercive since the police officers can use these commands to harm citizens, as in the case of the murder of Mr. Floyd, or implicitly in the case of threat to harm and explicitly as a threat.  Police use of force studies has mostly focused on a categorization based on officer and offender characteristics such as race, gender, education experience, and organizational factors, as a characteristic of the officer, and height and weight, respect, intoxication and neighborhood context as some  critical variables for the offenders.

Regarding officer characteristics, the literature has pointed to the discretionary decision-making police officers have to make daily. Such decision ranges from the use of force, the decision to arrest, and call for service from citizens for official action. There are recognized complexities associated with the officer’s discretion and the decision points on the officer’s part. One of the earliest and leading scholar on policing in America, Walker illustrated some examples of the ranges of police discretionary decision points. The arrest decision, Walker argues, is one of the most complex of all and can be one of the only options amongst many challenging responses to a difficult situation of deciding the exact charge to issue the suspect. The office’s decision is influenced by suspect preferences, which is equally influenced by the officers’ behavior. Officers driving patrol cars are also having the burden of making a critical decision responding to the scene of a service call from a citizen on whether to get to the scene as quickly as possible or even to attend to such calls at worst. Police officers do not want to be too “tightly constrained” within a linear policy model concerning restrictiveness, especially when considering physically resistant citizens. While it will be desirable for officers to have higher specification on how to deal with passive and verbally resistant suspects to prevent fatal encounters, studies have revealed that officers do not want to be overly regulated and restricted.

Consequently, an officer’s discretion continues to play a pivotal role in policing. It has become an area of increasing contestation for police reform in America. It is irresponsible not to examine police use of force through the lens of an officer’s discretion. Such an undertaking provides us with an understanding of the decision points regarding police use of force, which in itself is evident that decisions are not standardized or based on fixed protocol. Evidently, some deadly force and arrest are far more severe in their consequences on police use of force than others. It is safe to assert that the police murder of the late Mr. George Floyd was to a large extent driven by race and an overabundance of the officer’s discretion.

[1] Michael Conteh, MA, MS. Gender and Development Specialist and Social Justice Advocate