Journal of Experimental Criminology

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 171–191 | Cite as

Privileged protection? Effects of suspect race and mental illness status on public perceptions of police use of force

  • Kimberly Barsamian Kahn
  • Melissa Thompson
  • Jean M. McMahon



This study experimentally examined the joint influence of suspect race and mental illness status on the public’s support for police use of force, and whether participants’ race and social attitudes moderated these findings.


A diverse sample of community members (n = 259) from Portland, OR completed a survey with an imbedded experiment. Participants read a case file describing a police officer using force against a suspect who varied in race (Black vs. White) and mental illness status (history of mental illness vs. not), and indicated their level of support for the officer’s use of force.


While overall support for use of force was low, an analysis of variance (ANOVA) confirmed a significant interaction between suspect mental illness status and race on the public’s support for police force. Mental illness was a mitigating factor against support for police use of force, but only for White suspects. For Black suspects, mental illness instead increased support for police force, although support remained relatively low. These results were not influenced by participants’ race. Instead, effects were moderated by participants’ pre-existing affect about Blacks, such that positive affect decreased support for force against mentally ill Black suspects.


Mental illness status provides different protections based on suspect race, leading to racial bias in public support for police force. The results suggest that it may be relatively harder for the public to enact change against police force when it is directed against mentally ill racial minorities, as it is perceived less negatively by the public compared to White mentally ill individuals.


Race Mental illness Police Use of force Stereotypes Racial bias 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kimberly Barsamian Kahn
    • 1
  • Melissa Thompson
    • 2
  • Jean M. McMahon
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyPortland State UniversityPortlandUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyPortland State UniversityPortlandUSA

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