Police Coercion: Application of the Force Continuum

Police Coercion: Application of the Force Continuum

Police Coercion: Application of the Force Continuum

Police Coercion: Application of the Force Continuum


Terrill applies an innovative approach, the Resistance Force Comparative Scale, to examine the extent to which police behavior adheres to an "incrementalist" approach of escalating and de-escalating force in relation to citizen resistence.

Using observational data from two cities, Terrill studies police use of force to better understand how and why officers resort to force. He examines the extent of force within individual police-citizen encounters and tests numerous theoretical perspectives (sociological, psychological, and organizational) concerning why officers resort to force. Further he offers the Resistance Force Comparative Scale as a means for examining how officers move about the force continuum.

Results show that officers use higher levels of force on male, nonwhite, poor, young, and intoxicated citizens, offering primary support within a sociological theoretical framework. Surprisingly, however, officers are not more forceful toward disrespectful citizens. Analyses also reveal that officers differentially escalate and de-escalate force according to the presence and nature of citizen resistance. Interestingly, offivers do not jump at the opportunity to use force on resistant suspects, offering instead a second chance to comply before applying increased levels of force.


Police coercion has long been a central focus among those who have studied the police. According to Friedrich, “[p]olice use of force is theoretically important because it involves the execution of perhaps the essential function of the state and practically important because it affects the public’s attitudes and behaviors toward the police and government more generally” (1980: 82). To Bittner (1970), the defining aspect of the police role revolves around the capacity to use force. Not surprisingly, many studies pertaining to police use of force have been completed in the past few decades, and have enriched our understanding in this area (Westley, 1953; Reiss, 1968; Chevigny, 1969; Toch, 1969; Bittner, 1970; Friedrich, 1977; Muir, 1977; Black, 1980; Sykes and Brent, 1983; Fyfe, 1988; Bayley and Garofalo, 1989; Garner et al., 1995; Klinger, 1995; Worden, 1995). Despite this, there still exists a lack of reliable information on police use of force incidents – to such an extent that the United States Congress now requires the Attorney General to collect use of force data from police departments on an annual basis in accordance with Section 210402 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Few issues are more critical to police-community relations than use of force, and in an era of community policing, the emphasis is even greater. Police administrators throughout the nation are continually in need of information that will lead to greater insight regarding how and why officers resort to force – information that provides clues about how to minimize the amount of violence in police encounters with the public.

Using data collected as part of an observational study of the police in Indianapolis, Indiana, and St. Petersburg, Florida, I examine . . .

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