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What's a Proportional Police Response? It Depends on Who's Watching

By Christian Davenport

[This piece was originally published on Analog - The Anti-Blog.]


How do you know if the police are responding disproportionately?


David Armstrong, Thomas Zeitzoff and myself once wrote a paper about how different people perceived the severity of different tactics that could be selected by protestors and police.  In this work, we used a survey to identify what were perceived to be proportionate tactics as well as those which were perceived to be disproportionate.  The idea was that those which were believed to be comparable in terms of their degree of lethality/severity would not raise much of an eyebrow but those where either the police or protestors used behavior that was deemed to be non-comparable/disproportionate would piss people off - prompting perceptions of illegitimacy on behalf of the disproportionate actor and a willingness to support the actor viewed as being poorly treated. 


Meeting marching in the streets being met with pepper spray and tear gas is clearly in the zone of disproportionate response.  Looking at the current wave of protests and protest-policing moving across the US we can see all types of combinations of protestor and police action. I provide the chart above to help you better understand what choices are being made by the actors involved as well as how different combinations of protestor and police tactical choices will likely influence subsequent attitudes as well as behavior.


Now, one of the more interesting findings of this paper was that blacks and whites did not perceive the same tactics as being equally lethal/severe.  In fact, whites were more willing to give police a pass viewing certain tactics as being less problematic whereas blacks were more willing to give protestors a pass viewing certain tactics as being less problematic.


Essentially, this means that what we see taking place out in the streets will not generally be viewed in similar manners across distinct audiences and that our perceptions will likely lead to distinct actions in the aftermath of relevant activities.  It's not all bleak however.  What is interesting here is that it may be the case that when especially disproportionate activities are undertaken, we might see a convergence of opinion and in these moments we might actually find people coming together.  The latter insight was beyond the study mentioned but it definitely seems possible thus providing a little possibility of peaceful engagement amidst the dark cloud of future contention.


Christian Davenport is a Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and Elected Fellow at the American Association for the Arts and Sciences. Primary research interests include political conflict, measurement, racism and popular culture.

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