About | HeinOnline Law Journal Library | HeinOnline Law Journal Library | HeinOnline

32 Soc. Probs. 144 (1984-1985)
How Police Justify the Use of Deadly Force

handle is hein.journals/socprob32 and id is 156 raw text is: SOCIAL PROBLEMS, Vol. 32, No. 2, December 1984

Villanova University
Police shoot people while performing their occupational activities. This paper examines
how police interpret, explain, and justify the use of lethal force. Formal rules governing
this area of police behavior are vague, produce uncertainty, and provide only weak guid-
ance for officers. The occupational subculture of police contains a set of shared under-
standings as to when, why, and against whom shooting is justified. Subcultural under-
standings also constitute resources upon which members may draw to explain and account
for shooting incidents after the fact. Official accounts produced for outside audiences
are fashioned in line with publicly acceptable and legally justified reasons for shooting.
An average of 600 citizens are killed annually by police in the United States (Sherman, 1980:4).
Fyfe (1981:381) estimates that in 1978 an additional 1,400 persons suffered serious injury from
police shootings. The capacity to use force is the core of the police role and the unifying theme
in police work (Bittner, 1970). Previous research in this area has directed relatively little attention
to how police themselves view the use of lethal force against citizens.
Empirical studies have attempted to measure the extent of, and provide an explanation for, the
use of lethal force by police. Sherman and Langworthy (1979:553) attributed 3.6 percent of all
homicides to the police for the period 1971-1975. Kobler (1975:164) documents a consistent 5 to
1 ratio of police killing to police killed during the 1960s. More than half of those killed by police
are members of minority groups (Sherman, 1980:11). A 1963 study of eight major cities found that
the police homicide rate for blacks was nine times higher than for whites (Robin, 1963).
Police killings vary greatly between jurisdictions. For the period 1950-1960, the rates ranged
from 1.4 deaths per 10,000 police officers in Boston to 63.4 deaths per 10,000 officers in Akron,
Ohio (Robin, 1963). Kania and Mackey (1977) found that, for the years 1961-1970, police in
Georgia had the highest rate of killing of 37.9 per one million residents, while police in Hawaii,
New Hampshire, and Wisconsin killed slightly under three persons per one million residents.
The patterns revealed in survey research have provided the basis for efforts to explain police
violence. Kania and Mackey's (1977) ecological study found a significant relationship between the
rate of police homicide and the level of violent crime in the community. They suggest that police
are predisposed to use violence against citizens in response to the level of violence they encounter
in their working environment. Jacobs and Britt (1979), using the same data, found that police
homicides were highest in states with the greatest economic inequality. Their findings challenge
previous interpretations of police violence simply as a response to levels of violence in the
Some researchers have suggested that occupational stress may also be a factor in police killings.
Research has shown that police suffer disproportionately from stress-related health problems
(including gastrointestinal disorders and heart disease), alcoholism, marital and family problems,
emotional disorders and suicide (Duncan, 1979:v). Blackmore (1978) argues that police hostility
and aggression may also be related to occupational stress.
Another explanation, rooted in the sociology of occupations, emphasizes the influence of the
work environment on attitudes, values, and behavior. Westley (1953:216) was the first to apply this
perspective to police violence:
* The author thanks an anonymous Social Problems reviewer for suggestions. Correspondence to: Depart-
ment of Sociology, Villanova University, Villanova, PA 19085.

What Is HeinOnline?

HeinOnline is a subscription-based resource containing thousands of academic and legal journals from inception; complete coverage of government documents such as U.S. Statutes at Large, U.S. Code, Federal Register, Code of Federal Regulations, U.S. Reports, and much more. Documents are image-based, fully searchable PDFs with the authority of print combined with the accessibility of a user-friendly and powerful database. For more information, request a quote or trial for your organization below.

Short-term subscription options include 24 hours, 48 hours, or 1 week to HeinOnline.

Contact us for annual subscription options:

Already a HeinOnline Subscriber?

profiles profiles most