The General Social Survey asks respondents a few questions about the use of police force. The baseline question is worded, “Are there any situations you can imagine in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen?” (Since this is rather wordy and not easily condensed, I’ll be referring to it generally as “approve of police use of force” or something similar henceforth.)
Personally, this feels like a low bar. Off the top of my head, I would approve an officer striking a man who was assaulting someone and not stopping, or who otherwise might be a danger to themselves or others.
It turns out this view isn’t necessarily common, though. Race, education, and sex are important factors, while political ideology seems—surprisingly, in my opinion—not to have a significant relationship to views on the use of force.
Large racial differences in approval of force
There is a strong relationship between race and approval of police use of force. The black-white gap is particularly striking: black people are between 35% and 49% less likely than whites to say they can imagine approving of a policeman striking a man. That’s a massive opinion gap on a pretty fundamental aspect of policing.
Being afraid to walk one’s neighborhood at night doesn’t correspond to increased approval of officers’ use of force. For blacks, being afraid to walk their neighborhood at night actually may be associated with decreased approval of police use of force (p=.06).
Having a personal relationship to an officer does seem to make black people more likely to be able to imagine an officer justifiably striking a citizen. Notably, black and white people are about equally as likely to have a relationship to a police officer.
Education positively associated with theoretical approval of use of force
Okay, this was a big surprise. Personally, I’d assumed more education would mean less approval of force by police. This felt like a pretty easy extrapolation from existing social science research that negatively correlates educational attainment with authoritarian tendencies, which I figured would make someone more likely to be okay with the police using force. I also thought that since people with advanced degrees tend to live in safer neighborhoods, they’d feel less need for forceful policing.
Admittedly it’s hard to tell if we’re just observing collinearity between race and education, so I created facets by race. Unfortunately, some of the sample sizes are too small for reliable inference (e.g. there are only 11 black graduate degree-holders in the 2018 sample, hence massive confidence intervals). There were only consistently adequate sample sizes among whites, for whom the pattern holds broadly.
No significant relationship between political ideology and views on force
Another foray, another surprise! I’d expected large ideological gaps in approval, which I certainly didn’t find.
Men vs. women
If the above suggest that the people least enthusiastic about police use of force are those most likely to experience it (minorities, people with less education), women’s reliably lower rates of approval of police force complicate that narrative.