Structural and Organizational Determinants of Police Brutality Civil Rights Criminal Complaints: A Test of Conflict Theory

Bradley W. Smith, Wayne State University
Malcolm D. Holmes, University of Wyoming

Relying on the conflict theory of law, researchers have argued that perceptions of minority threat enhance crime control efforts by the police, including the employment of police brutality. Although research in this tradition documents minority disadvantage at the hands of the police, important issues of theory and policy are not addressed in existing studies of police brutality. Notably, the organizational characteristics of police departments, which are a staple of policy recommendations to ameliorate the problem, have yet to be examined systematically. Proponents of the conflict theory of law minimize the possibility that organizational factors could meaningfully reduce the incidence of police brutality. They maintain that the structural divisions producing differential treatment are unaffected by organizational changes that do not alter the root cause, the segregation and deprivation of America's minorities. Empirical validation of this premise has not been forthcoming. Here we test this assumption of conflict theory in a study that extends the set of predictor variables specified by the structural-level threat hypothesis to include seven organizational predictors of police brutality civil rights criminal complaints. The study includes cities of 150,000+ population (n = 113). The findings revealed large positive effects for the measures of threatening people-i.e., percent black, percent Hispanic (in the Southwest), and majority/minority income inequality. Of the seven organizational variables, only two had effects, which were relatively small. The findings clearly support the conflict argument regarding crime control strategies by the police.

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Updated 05/20/2006