Police and the Use of Deadly Force: A New Test for a New (and Some Old) Theory

Zachary R. Hays, The Pennsylvania State University

The police killing of a civilian has been, and always will be, an area of great concern to both the public and the police. However, in the past 20+ years of research there have traditionally been only two theories used to explain police use of deadly force: conflict and danger-perception. While these two theories have found much support, we still do not fully understand what influences a police officer's use of force. This study not only reexamines the conflict and danger-perception explanations of police use of deadly force, it also offers a third theory for testing: the vigilante officer theory. This theory argues that some police officers may take the law into their own hands, and consequently use deadly force, when they do not believe that the criminal justice system is doing its job effectively. This theory, along with both the conflict and danger-perception theories, will be tested using select counties from five major United States metropolitan statistical areas over a period of 27 years (1975-2001). In addition to the testing of the new vigilante officer theory, this study utilizes pooled time series analysis, a relatively new method for the field, in order to study the conflict and danger-perception theories in a new light. Data comes from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the U.S. Census Bureau. Ultimately, this study will provide the field with an additional explanation for police use of force and results from the analysis should provide us with a better understanding of police homicides in general.

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Updated 05/20/2006