The Use of Force Continuum: Police, Power, and Prejudice

by Joe Ponce

In Beavercreek, Ohio, under the glaringly white fluorescent lights of a Walmart superstore, John Crawford III walked around idly holding a BB gun he’d picked up from a shelf. He holds the gun limply (sometimes using it to scratch his back, his neck) as he speaks on the phone and wanders around the near-empty aisles. Somewhere else, perhaps in someone’s imagination, John Crawford III is stalking the aisles waving the gun around and pointing it at children. In reality, the police are called. When they arrive, they see the second, imagined John Crawford III instead of the bored shopper, the man on the phone: he is shot in the back from fifteen feet away, no doubt confused, as were we all, why the police opened fire on a man for walking around a store. He was killed on the spot.

Often the police officers in this situation seemingly disappear from press and media coverage, whisked away under paid leave.  News outlets defend these absent cops, explaining the split second decision making that is required,(1) the pressures of the job and deadly nature of police work. Often in response, police Public Information Officers (“PIOs”) are told to give a boilerplate response to the media that emphasizes training and tactics–negotiations, “verbal judo,” and the Ladder of Escalation–that each officer learns by rote in the police academy. If he followed the rules, the PIO states, the incident will be labeled a “clean shoot” and the cop will not be indicted. (Poor training and young officers are the most typical laments critics use of shootings like Crawford’s.) But one uniting factor in these questionable shootings is the disavowal by the PIO and by police of something obvious: John Crawford III was black; an officer observed this and their instinctual reaction was to fire.

In situations like Beavercreek, Ohio, or in Ferguson, the PIO releases statements that the officers act to the best of their ability given the parameters of often-ambiguous situations. If a person decides to challenge an officer’s authority (as has been asserted by some concerning the Mike Brown shooting), the officer will have to respond in kind. This idea is reiterated  by Sunil Dutta, a police officer, in a piece for the Washington Post: to directly challenge a police officer’s authority is to start a process that may end in physical confrontation, sometimes in a fatality.(2) But this response overlooks the fact that black people are disproportionately the victims of police shootings in at least ten major cities in the United States (in some cities, such as NYC, San Diego, and Las Vegas, the percentage of black shootings is double the percentage of black population in the  city),(3) or that from 2005 to 2012 a white officer killed a black person nearly twice a week, in separate data collected by the FBI.(4)

This police response raises questions: what counts as a challenge to an officer? What does he or she consider a threat? Are these considerations different for different officers? But also: is he more likely to consider a gesture threatening if it is coming from a person of color? Studies also show that these are not incidents isolated to impoverished communities, and happen to POCs of various socioeconomic backgrounds.(5)  In 2010, in Bellaire, Texas, Robert Tolan Jr. was shot while face down on the street in front of his parent’s house, after being forcibly ordered from his own car (which the police officers believed was stolen). The officer, Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton, shot Tolan after his parents came out of their home, and Tolan raised his head to demand the officers not be rough with his mother. Sgt. Cotton was acquitted of all charges: he said that he believed Tolan was “reaching for something.” One article stated that the Tolans were the only black family on that street. The estimated median income for Bellaire, Texas, in 2012, was $148,000. Tolan’s father, Bobby Tolan, is a former Major League baseball player.

Sometimes these potentially prejudicial homicides occur to cops. In New York, in 2009, Omar J. Edwards was shot and killed by Andrew P. Dutton, who mistook him for a threat. Edwards was black, Dutton white, and both were police officers. The NY Times article that broke the story said the problem was systemic and pervasive: cops bring their own prejudices into situations, and these assumptions are sometimes fatal.  “There’s your training and there’s your reaction,” one cop says of the situation, “that’s two different things.”(6) Since 1990, there have been less than half a dozen cop-on-cop shootings in New York City, but the stories are disheartening: in 2006 an Officer Hernandez, off-duty, got into a fistfight with a gang member in a White Castle, and Officer Toro, responding to the call, shot Hernandez, who later died. One story interviews a police captain who tries to correct incorrect behavioral thinking in his team: when questioning a young officer about what went through his mind when he saw a black man walking down the street with a gun, the young cop said the man might potentially be a threat; that same officer said a white person walking down the street with a gun could be a threat, or–potentially–an undercover police officer. This disparity is often overlooked in training.(7)

Pretending that the law is objective–and that police officers are objective arbiters of the law– is short sighted and leaves out two very basic and troubling facts: 1) a police officer is allowed, based on their own judgment, to kill you if they believe you to be a threat; and 2) a police officer is more likely to shoot a person of color (especially a black person) in the mistaken belief that such a person is a threat, as police forces are disproportionately white, and disproportionately target persons of color (black people specifically).

So, what is the process under which an officer, often young and presented with an adrenaline-filled situation, is trained to react with a threat of force (to kill you, if need be)? Once a threat has been determined, cops are taught to use The Ladder of Escalation, also known as the Use of Force Continuum, a steady escalation tactic in dealing with potential threats.(8) Verbal Warnings are given, persuasion tactics used, threats of arrest, threats of forcible consent, and then lethal force, are condoned after a step-by-step process. The actual wording of these maneuvers can take several forms (verbal direction coming first, and then “soft, empty hands” others having “pain compliance” and “take-down” listed) but in all cases the ladder terminates in the use of lethal force.

The Ladder was initially instigated for cops appearing before police review boards. It became an “objective” way for institutions to determine if a shoot was “justified:” Did the police in question follow the steps in order? Were steps skipped? An officer’s presence, the first step in most escalation manuals, is sometimes enough to keep things from getting worse.

In one case study conducted in 2001, a team of sociologists attempted to train a 90-person police force in handling domestic violence situations of minority and immigrant groups, with mixed results.(9) Training police–a largely hegemonic, male group–about the problem of race means encountering some resistance. Cops used different methods (denial, focus on individualism, resistance, anger, and avoidance) in order to keep from speaking on the subject. Cops rolled their eyes when presented with seminars about privilege; they ignored the trainer, questioned their methods, their expertise, doodled in their notebooks, refused to follow instructions and in some cases threw away or left their workbooks behind.

These difficulties, the study argues, stem not from a specific, unruly police force in a small New England town (the sample group in this study), but from a symptom of police culture and training that is inherently biased towards ignorance of its own position of power. A lack of diversity and disparity within police departments encourages group-think and overtly stereotypical “masculine” (aggressive) behaviors, which can lead to “increased militarization, police culture (e.g., us versus them), lack of racial diversity, and racial profiling.” The social scientists from this study cite other papers that paint police officers as “outcome-oriented,” that is, focused on catching criminals rather than distinguishing complex social behaviors.

Because of the nature of police work, a cop will encounter an individual once they have reached the point of already having broken the law. A cop is not trained to see the social and cultural context behind a potential suspect, only to arrest crimes they see or crimes that are reported. By creating a binary of right and wrong that leaves out a great portion of the social and racial subtext, cop are asked to use their “best judgment,” and often in these cases minorities (especially blacks) receive an out of proportion response from police officers.(10) By attempting to be “colorblind” (a phrase maladroitly bandied by police departments), they may neglect their own prejudices, or those of the people reporting a crime.

Consider for example, John Crawford III. The call which the police officers were responding to was that of a man with a gun “waving it wildly” at people in a Walmart in the middle of the day.  Only one call came into the 911 center, from Ronald Ritchie, who during the call repeated said that Crawford was both waving the gun around and pointing it “at children” (both claims were proved to be unfounded by video footage).(11) When police officers appear on the scene, John Crawford is facing a shelf, with the rifle held in one hand. They yell “get down” but if they yell “police” it can’t be heard in the audio. And when he pivots towards them (from the shoulder, gun still at his side), they fire on him, and he falls. A woman screams. The time from the cop yelling to John Crawford lying on the floor is about a second, the kind of split-second training in which cops are supposed to be able to operate.

While some part of shooting has been attributed to this false report by Ronald Ritchie, the burden of Crawford’s death both lies on him–the 23-year old who assumed a black man distractedly holding a rifle while on the phone was an active shooter–and the police officer, who also saw what he wanted to see.

Racial prejudices and training about inequality are either de-emphasized or not taught. There could be a lot of reasons for this (limited state or federal funding, or administrative choice, a subject which would require its own essay). But by not being taught, there is an implicit message sent to police officers and the communities they protect that such things are not important.

A lot of distrust for cops comes from what is seen as an implicit lack of consent by communities where those cops work. Cops have to be trained to operate in situations where they start with an uphill battle to gain the trust of the community. Getting out of their police cars and walking “beats” (pre-established patrol routes) has been shown to work better in creating “non-traditional” (e.g. nonviolent and reactionary) strategies for dealing with crime.(12) Cops that work with neighborhood watch organizations, who have a regular and sustained presence in public venues–town hall meetings, local festivals–along with accountability for their actions to the communities they serve helps bridge the gap between cop and civilian. Cops also need to stop learning a “colorblind” racial perspective; it keeps them from addressing systemic racism, social prejudices, their own position of power and privilege, and any misconceptions or stereotypes they might not have ever explored or been forced to address. Training in such subjects as sociology and anthropology at the police academy could expand their working knowledge.

Studies have found that racial stereotyping behaviors can only be reversed in situations of “sustained” interaction between diverse groups and in settings without power disparities; this can only be accomplished by diversifying police forces. According to a Washington Post article, more than ¾ of the countries major’s cities have police forces that are “disproportionately white” compared to the local population. For example, Baltimore is 26% white, but whites make up 46% of the police force.(13) After accounting for cities with small black populations (less than 4%), it reveals that in 72% of census-surveyed cities blacks are underrepresented: 446 cities. That number is 66% for Hispanics: 609 cities. This problem is worse in smaller cities, where legislation that forced major cities to integrate was never passed, as in places like Ferguson, with 3 black cops of 53, with a 67% black population for the city.(14)

A cop has to understand his prejudices, that he is part of a system that has incarcerated young black men disproportionately over every other race in the United States for decades. He also has to understand minority populations are more likely to interact with police officers in a negative way (or believe that such interactions will go badly before they begin).(15) “Federal Agencies and police departments, too, need to support a shift in police officer training away from incremental violence responses towards communication strategies, assertion and affirmation techniques (and also, as a corollary, seek to dismantle the “traditional police” stereotype that de-emphasizes–and ridicules–emotional awareness and restraint). A drastic move should also be made away from live ammunition towards less-lethal devices and techniques; live ammo has only exacerbated situations where a misunderstanding or misconception might not have turned lethal if any other methods had been used.

The term “good shoot” has entered their terminology, as if such a thing were ever a good thing.

1 See
2 See
4 See This data set is widely held to be incomplete (750 departments of 17,000 nationwide participated), as the statistics are not mandatory for police departments to disclose. The data is also presented ‘as is,’ meaning that there is no external auditing done of data collected, and often departments are reluctant to admit excessive use of force. A data-collecting project for police use-of-force was started in 1996 but shut down in 2001 due to a lack of funding.
5 See Lee, supra note 3, and Delores Jones-Brown “The Right to Life? Policing, Race, and Criminal Injustice” (“it seems that the officers needed only to utter the word “fear” to be determined not liable for criminal conduct. There is little serious inquiry as to whether the fear was rational or whether it was based on or influenced by racial stereotypes or other constitutionally impermissible assumptions.”)
6 Powell, Michael, “Despite a Diverse Police Force, Blacks Still Face Special Peril.”
7 Ibid. (““We tend to pretend in the police force that we don’t see race, we don’t see ethnicity, but we do,” said Senator Adams, the former police captain. “One of my cops once said that if he sees a non-uniformed black man with a gun, he takes precautions for himself; if he sees a white guy with a gun, he takes precautions for both because he knows it could be a fellow cop.”)
8 See
9 See Huisman, Kimberly, Jeri Martinez, and Cathleen Wilson, “Training Police Officers on Domestic Violence and Racism,”
10 See Golab, Art, “Study: Minorities more likely to get tickets, have their vehicle searched.”
11 See
12 See
13 See Badger, Emily, Dan Keating and Kennedy Elliott, “Where minorities still have overwhemingly white police,”
14 The subject of archaic police practices that have never been overturned because of a lack of federal funding or administrative oversight could also be the topic of its own essay.

15 See Tuch, Steven and Ronald Weitzer, “Rethinking Minority Attitudes toward the Police.” at p. 3, 14, 17, and 19.

Photo credit: Ryan McGuire of Bells Design


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