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, (0), 0, pp. 1–31,