The force of fear: Police stereotype threat, self- legitimacy, and support for excessive force

Erin M. Kerrison | School of Social Welfare | Law and Human Behavior, 2019

Researchers have linked police officers’ concerns with appearing racist—a kind of stereotype threat—to racial disparities in the use of force. This study presents the first empirical test of the hypothesized psychological mechanism linking stereotype threat to police support for violence. We hypothesized that stereotype threat undermines officers’ self-legitimacy, or the confidence they have in their inherent authority, encouraging overreliance on coercive policing to maintain control. Officers (n 784) from the patrol division of a large urban police force completed a survey in order to test this hypothesis. Respondents completed measures of stereotype threat, self-legitimacy, resistance to use of force policy, approval of unreasonable force, and endorsement of procedurally fair policing. Structural equation models showed that elevated stereotype threat was associated with lower self-legitimacy ( .15), which in turn was associated with more resistance to restrictions on force ( .17), greater approval of unreasonable force (.31), and lower endorsement of fair policing (.57). These results reveal that concerns about appearing racist are actually associated with increased support for coercive policing— potentially further eroding public trust.