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The distribution of police use of force across patrol and specialty units: a case study in BWC impact

Abstract

Objectives

To examine differences in use of force by police patrol and specialized units, and the impact of body-worn cameras (BWCs) on use of force in these groups.

Methods

We use administrative data from the Tempe (AZ) Police Department collected during a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of BWCs. t tests of means and ARIMA models were constructed to analyze unit-level variation in use of force.

Results

Tempe officers in specialized units use substantially more force than patrol officers. BWCs had no impact on use of force among patrol officers but were associated with a significant decline in force among specialty unit officers who received BWCs in the second phase of the study.

Conclusion

Unit-level variations in force can have implications for selection, training, and other areas of police practice. Additionally, our findings show the necessity of accounting for group variation within departments when assessing the impact of BWCs on outcomes like use of force.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. The larger evaluation encompassed a number of other components (see Gaub et al. 2016, 2020; White et al. 2018b; Todak et al. 2018). The randomization protocol called for all officers below the rank of lieutenant (including sergeants, officers, and some designated as detectives) who were assigned to the patrol division (N = 200) to be randomly assigned to receive a BWC during either phase 1 (November 2015) or phase 2 (May 2016). The department had already planned to use a phased approach to deploying BWCs, so randomization permitted an experimental design.

  2. The Tactical Response Unit (TRU) is the full-time SWAT unit; several officers in other assignments are SWAT-certified and respond to calls with TRU when a larger response is needed.

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Correspondence to Janne E. Gaub.

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Gaub, J.E., Todak, N. & White, M.D. The distribution of police use of force across patrol and specialty units: a case study in BWC impact. J Exp Criminol 17, 545–561 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-020-09429-8

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Keywords

  • Body-worn cameras (BWCs)
  • Police
  • Use of force
  • Randomized controlled trial (RCT)
  • Specialty units