Report Reveals Police Use of Force Rising for Black, Female, and Older People

(Prison Policy Initiative)

Report Reveals Police Use of Force Rising for Black, Female, and Older People

Recent Bureau of Justice Statistics provide comprehensive look at relations between police and the public in 2019 and 2020

The Prison Policy Institute has released a report analyzing survey data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on “Contacts between police and the public in 2020.” The report reveals that, while fewer people came into contact with police overall, “those interactions were still too often racially discriminatory and too often involved improper or harmful conduct.” 

While the BJS survey has led to key findings regarding the discriminatory use of force by police, the scope of the data leaves out incidences between police and the public after June 2020, subsequent months of which saw deep social unrest caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a “nationwide reckoning with racialized police violence” following the death of George Floyd.

More than 1 in 5 people in the survey reported coming into contact with police in the past twelve months. Of these reports, 2% of people experienced the nonfatal threat or use of force. This force consists of being handcuffed, pushed or grabbed, hit or kicked, used chemical or pepper spray or an electroshock weapon on, pointed or fired a gun at, or some other kind of physical force. 

Of this 2%, the use of force disproportionately affected Black people. The statistics reveal that racial disparities in policing persist, particularly in regards to the threat or use of force. Black people were 12 times more likely to experience police misconduct. During traffic stops in particular, Black and Hispanic people were most likely to experience a search or arrest, while white people enjoyed the effects of police discretion and were most likely to leave a traffic stop with a mere warning. 2020 saw approximately 1 million fewer traffic incidents, likely a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Two additional trends were also revealed: older people are vulnerable to harmful interactions with the police, and police are increasingly threatening or actually using force against women. More than 1 in 7 people aged 65 or older reported police contact, with the number of people in the same age range experiencing the use of force nearly doubling between 2018 and 2020. Women accounted for an “alarming” 31% of those experiencing the use of threat or force in recent police interactions. 

The findings by the BJS led the Prison Policy Initiative to ask a number of pressing questions: how has policing changed through 2020? Why are women increasingly experiencing the use of force by police, while this figure is decreasing for men? Do police really provide solutions to those in need of help? 

The data reveals that 36% of people who contacted police for help felt as though the response did not improve the situation, though 93% were equally likely to contact police again in future incidents. The Prison Policy Initiative noted that this dependence may be indicative of the need for alternatives to policing. 

In light of the political movement to “defund” the police, the BJS also issued administrative surveys of law enforcement personnel, the scope of which extends to the end of 2020, beyond the survey on contacts between police and the public. The Initiative reported that, in line with reports of stagnant or increased police budgets in the 2021-22 fiscal year, the police were not “defunded” in 2020. The report also noted sheriffs and police chiefs continue to be overwhelmingly white.

The Prison Policy Initiative concluded its report, stating “hopefully, future versions of this survey will help paint a clearer picture of how policing has evolved over the past two years and how advocates and lawmakers can continue to push for change.” In light of the data provided by the BJS, “we’ve yet to see meaningful shifts in policing institutions.”


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