On December 25, 2019, a New Haven, Connecticut police officer approached a man whose car was illegally parked and asked him to sit on the sidewalk.
Within minutes, the situation had escalated violently. In a video posted to YouTube by a Hartford news station, the officer can be seen punching the man to the ground, kicking him and pulling his hair. Because the officer was wearing a body camera, everything was caught on tape, and officer Jason Santiago was later charged with third-degree assault.
How can simple police-civilian interactions like this turn into violence so quickly?
Eric Piza, Professor of Criminology at Northeastern to answer this question. By analyzing hundreds of hours of body camera footage from the Newark Police Department, Piza and his colleagues are helping to determine what factors predict violent interactions between officers and civilians. Their work has had far-reaching implications for the training of police forces.
Piza’s latest research, published last month in the journal Criminology, follows a decade-long effort to reform the Newark Police Department after a 2011 Justice Department investigation found the department covered up allegations of misconduct. In 2014, the Newark Police Department was put under surveillance, and a “consent decree” dictated that the city would follow any recommendations from the Department of Justice.
Now all uniformed Newark police officers are required to wear body cameras that accumulate thousands of hours of footage.
Of course, Piza sees thousands of hours of data in it that can help us better understand how officials and citizens interact. Two years ago, he and his team worked with the Newark Police Department to analyze body camera footage that showed the use of violence, which they define as “any violent physical action taken against a suspect,” but did not include handcuffs.
Using footage of 91 encounters between officials and citizens recorded between December 2017 and December 2018, Piza “coded” the content, cropping the footage at five-second intervals and recording various variables. These included quiet commands, yelling commands, non-compliance by the citizen, “verbally antagonistic behavior” by the citizen or officer, and varying degrees of use of force. The team also recorded other variables, e.g. B. whether the encounter took place indoors or outdoors, time of day and accents. Unlike previous research, they considered timing: how quickly did these encounters escalate?
Their results show that police action, or “authority retention variables,” predicted the use of force better than civilian action. In fact, Piza found that the greatest predictor of the use of force was an officer issuing an order, with the use of force often immediately following a calm command.
“It’s kind of a low-level activity,” says Piza. “So it was interesting for us to see that this minor activity by a police officer is indicative of the use of physical force.”
Officers who arrived as replacements also predicted the use of force; Piza suggests that this is because officers are waiting for reinforcements before using force, or that additional officers have created a more chaotic situation.
Civilian actions such as resisting arrest, failing to obey a verbal command, or attempting to flee were also predictive, but not as strongly as police actions. “Based on the analysis, the officers’ actions were more predictable,” says Piza.
Also, they did nothing to reduce the likelihood of violence when encountering a civilian. A previous study by Piza found that employing “procedural justice” tactics—or a sequence of actions from a verbal command to the use of force—reduces the likelihood of using force.
But the results of this study suggest police officers are skipping these steps, Piza says. “It seems that in our study, police officers would essentially resort to violence to quickly gain control of a situation,” he says.
The research could have far-reaching implications for police policy and training, says Piza. Using respectful tones, explaining things clearly, and responding to questions are all tactics that reduce the likelihood of violence being used.
“This clearly shows that officers are quick to use force to deal with suspected violations, rather than resorting to other, more forceful verbal tactics,” says Piza. “Any retraining of Newark police officers on the use of force should really emphasize these types of activities.”
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