Race, Demeanor, Resistance and Police Coercion: Disentangling the Relationships

Robin Shepard Engel, University of Cincinnati
Kenneth J. Novak, University of Missouri - Kansas City

In this paper we examine the interactive inlfuence of citizens' race, demeanor, and resistance over police use of coercion during police-citizen encounters. Applying berger, Fisek, Norman, & Zelditch's (1977) theory of status characteristics and social interaction, we argue that police behavior is best understood as the result of officers' interpretations of police-citizen encounters, which are guided by citizens' statu characteristics. Using systematic social observation data collected in Cincinnati in 1997-98, we test these propositions by examining the use of coercion against suspects during encounters with police. Following Terrill and Mastrofski (2002), police coercion is measured on a continuum of behavior and is defined as "acts that threaten or inflict physical harm on citizens, including forms of both verbal and physical force." Using hierarchical linear modeling, we estimate the influence of the status characteristics of both citizens and officers over officers' displays of coercive actions. Separate models are also estimated and compared for white and nonwhite suspects. The findings suggest that nonwhite suspects are at increased risk for police use of coercive techniques, and further, that the predictors of police coercion differe dramatically for white and nonwhite suspects.

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Updated 05/20/2006