News | July 5, 2000

Excessive Force, Unethical Police Behavior Unacceptable to U.S. Officers

A majority of law enforcement officers in the United States find incidents of excessive force unacceptable and believe that police should be held accountable and punished for inappropriate behavior, according to two studies released today by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).

"Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority: Findings from a National Survey," questioned more than 900 U.S. police officers regarding their attitudes about police abuse of authority. The second study, "The Measurement of Police Integrity," surveyed officers in 30 police agencies nationwide to explore organizational influences on police behavior.

"These findings support what we already know -- that the behavior of our nation's law enforcement officers is guided by principled decision-making," said Attorney General Janet Reno. "But any incidence of unethical behavior or inappropriate use of force is unacceptable."

"These two policing studies also give us direction about the tools that supervisors and line officers need to foster sound decision-making," added Acting NIJ Director Julie Samuels. "We now know that factors such as strong leadership from police chiefs and supervisors as well as training in ethics and diversity, can help prevent inappropriate behavior or excessive use of force on the streets."

Police attitudes toward abuse of authority

To assess police attitudes about abuse of authority, researchers polled 925 randomly selected police officers from 121 departments. The officers were asked what types of abuse and attitudes toward abuse police observe in their departments and what strategies or tactics are effective in preventing officers from abusing authority.

The majority responded that:

  • it is unacceptable to use more force than legally allowable to control someone who physically assaults an officer;
  • extreme cases of police abuse of authority occur infrequently, although fellow officers occasionally use more force than necessary when making an arrest; and
  • the police "code of silence" affects an officer's willingness to report improper police behavior.

Officers also reported that departments and management that take a "tough stand" on the issue of police abuse play a critical role in preventing police from abusing their authority. The survey respondents also identified measures they believed to be effective in preventing and reducing police abuse of authority, such as courses in interpersonal skills and ethics and diversity training.

"The findings of this latest study provide us with a valuable resource as we continue to help train law enforcement and community leaders on the importance of ethics and integrity in public safety," said Thomas Frazier, Director of the COPS Office. "Our partnership with law enforcement has forged new ground in developing and delivering diversity and ethics curriculum to law enforcement agencies across the nation."

Finally, the researchers found significant differences in the way black and non-black officers view police abuse of authority. For example, when asked whether they perceive that whites generally receive better treatment by the police, over half of African American officers (51.3 percent) feel that disparate treatment exists, while only 23.4 percent and 11.9 percent of other minority and white officers, respectively, agree with that statement. The researchers also found that while only 1 in 20 white officers believe that the police are more likely to use physical force against blacks and other minorities, over half of the African-American officers surveyed (57.1 percent) felt that blacks and other minorities would be more likely to have physical force used against them by law enforcement.

The measurement of police integrity

The researchers, who surveyed officers in 30 police agencies across the country, drew the following conclusions about the perception of police integrity:

  • police officers were more likely to report and endorse severe discipline for more serious misconduct;
  • the majority of police officers felt that their department's disciplinary policies for misconduct are fair; and
  • a majority of police officers said that they would not report a fellow officer who had been engaged in what they regarded as less serious conduct, but would report conduct such as stealing from a burglary scene or accepting a kickback.

Researchers also found considerable differences among the 30 agencies, which were not named in the report. In comparing officer responses from an agency with a national reputation for integrity with one that has suffered a long history of scandal and corruption problems, they found many differences in officer perception of abuse of authority. The most pronounced difference related to the code of silence: in the agency with the reputation for integrity, officers reported that they would report moderate and more serious incidents of police misconduct, while in the other agency, there was no case that the majority of officers indicated they would report. This finding led the researchers to conclude that the code of silence "remains a powerful influence ... which can provide an environment in which corrupt behavior can flourish."

NIJ, the Justice Department's research and evaluation arm, supports research, evaluation, and demonstration programs, the development of technology, and both national and international information dissemination. The COPS office promotes community policing and has implemented the Administration's objective of funding 100,000 new police officers.

To access these two publications on-line or for additional information about NIJ and its programs, visit its site on the World Wide Web at Hard copies of this report may be obtained by calling the Justice Department's National Criminal Justice Reference Service at 800-851-3420. Information about other Office of Justice Programs (OJP) bureaus and program offices is available at, while information about the COPS program may be found online at

Edited by Bob Arguero