Expert Commentary

Police use of force: Most suspects in three cities studied were not injured

Police officers rarely used force to apprehend and detain criminal suspects and, when they did, most suspects were not injured, finds a study of three city police departments.

Man being arrested by police

Police officers rarely used force to apprehend and detain criminal suspects and, when they did, most suspects were not injured, according to a two-year study of three police departments in Arizona, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Fewer than 1% of the arrests examined required the use of force, which can range from verbal commands and control holds to employing stun guns, police dogs and firearms.

The research team, comprised mostly of medical doctors, found that 61% of suspects had no reported or observed injuries after officers used force during their arrest. Meanwhile, 1.7% suffered moderate or severe injuries, including one death, according to the first-of-its-kind analysis, led by William P. Bozeman of the Wake Forest School of Medicine.

The study offers additional insights about police use of force, which has faced increased scrutiny since the 2014 death of Michael Brown, a black teenager shot by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In recent years, news reports of officers beating unarmed citizens have sparked outrage and questions about how police treat people of color.

For this study, the researchers examined more than 1 million calls for service made in 2011 and 2012 to police stations in three mid-sized cities: Mesa, Arizona; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Unlike previous studies, the researchers investigated the types of force used during each arrest and identified and classified all resulting injuries. A panel of five physicians reviewed all injuries considered moderate or severe to determine their final classification.

It’s worth noting that the team did not look at suspects’ race or ethnicity as a part of their study, published in March 2018 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery.

Some of the other key findings:

  • When officers used force, they mostly used either physical force or stun guns. Just over half the time, police used “unarmed physical force” — a category that includes control holds and joint manipulation as well as kicks, strikes with closed fists, knees or elbows and forcibly throwing someone to the ground. They used stun guns, commonly known by the brand name TASER, 36% of the time.
  • Just over 6% of use of force incidents involved pepper spray. Another 3% involved police dogs.
  • Firearms were used 0.4% of the time, representing a total of six incidents.
  • Almost 40% of suspects suffered injuries as a result of police use of force. Of these, 37% had “mild” injuries — for example, abrasions and minor contusions. About 1% had “moderate” injuries such as bone fractures or a collapsed lung. Four people — 0.4% of suspects — suffered severe or life-threatening injuries.
  • Firearms and police dogs were most likely to cause significant injuries. “While this is also consistent with common sense and previous reports, small sample size/rarity of use limit this to a preliminary conclusion. More detailed data collection at a national level is now being implemented and should confirm and clarify this risk.”
  • Of the 355 suspects who were taken to the emergency room for a medical evaluation, 22% were hospitalized. Less than a quarter of those hospitalized had injuries related to officers’ use of force.

Want more research on this topic? Check out our longer research review on police use of force. We also have write-ups on deaths in police custody and how body cameras change the way officers interact with the public.

This post originally was published in May 2018. We made changes to the headline and first sentence to make it clearer that the study’s findings apply to police use of force in three cities.

This photo by grendelkhan was obtained from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.


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