Lay evaluations of police and civilian use of force: Action severity scales.

In modern societies, citizens cede the legitimate use of violence to law enforcement agents who act on their behalf. However, little is known about the extent to which lay evaluations of forceful actions align with or diverge from official use-of-force policies and heuristics that officers use to choose appropriate levels of responsive force. Moreover, it is impossible to accurately compare official policies and lay intuitions without first measuring the perceived severity of a set of representative actions. To map these psychometric scale values precisely, we presented participants (N = 411 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, N = 395 undergraduates) with minimal vignettes describing officer and civilian actions that span the entire range of force options (from polite dialogue to lethal force), and asked them to rate physical magnitude and moral appropriateness. We used Bayesian methods to model the ratings as functions of simultaneously estimated scale values of the actions. Results indicated that the perceived severity of actions across all physical but nonlethal categories clustered tightly together, while actions at the extreme levels were relatively spread out. Moreover, less normative officer actions were perceived as especially morally severe. Broadly, our findings reveal divergence between lay perceptions of force severity and official law enforcement policies, and they imply that the groundwork for disagreement about the legitimacy of police and civilian actions may be partially rooted in the differential way that action severity is perceived by law enforcement relative to civilian observers. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)