UT Dallas Magazine

Beyond the Headlines

Studies and Collaborations Focus on Issues Facing Police


To Move Forward We Need to Understand Why Police Use Force

If we are to try to make sense of the Dallas ambush and the terrible events that precipitated it over the years, it is important to know how often and why police use force. We also must better understand the frustrations perceived and experienced by communities and police. Let’s start with some facts about use of force by officers and against officers, because what we think we know may not be accurate:

1. Use of force includes a wide range of actions. The use-of-force continuum starts with low levels of force (verbal commands), then escalates to middle levels (holds), to intermediate (Taser deployments) and finally to the most extreme and potentially fatal uses of force (firearm discharges). The most severe types of force are used the least frequently, as evidenced in recent research that I co-authored in the American Journal of Public Health.

2. Most officers do not plan to use deadly force. Sometimes police encounter citizens in difficult circumstances, and officers must make instantaneous decisions without having all the information necessary. It is much like when a baseball umpire needs to make a call on a ball or strike. Time is not on the umpire’s side. Officers cannot hit pause to go read a manual or look at a replay. I don’t mean to trivialize these decisions but to highlight their complexity.

3. Various factors influence use and severity of force. These include a crime in progress, citizens under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the presence of bystanders and the citizen’s general behavior. Officer characteristics are related to use of deadly force, too. My colleagues and I found in a new study in Police Quarterly that officers who had difficulty in controlling their impulses were more likely to discharge their firearms.

4. Estimates reported by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show that, with the exception of 2011 and the 9/11 attacks, the number of officer fatalities has been steadily decreasing since the early 1970s. In 2016, 135 officers were killed in the line of duty, out of more than a million officers nationwide. Despite what some commentators have argued, researchers have found no increase in assaults against police after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and little empirical evidence to support claims that police have stepped back from their duties.

We still have much to learn about the use of force, including the subtler context of the community’s interaction with the police, especially from the perspectives of the community members, including minority communities.

This is a different question, and one that is of greater concern to many civic groups. We also must examine not just the nature of police-community interactions but whether these interactions vary across different types of communities.

It may be time to get past divisive views that cops are running rampant using force or that citizens hate cops, as neither narrative is constructive or based in factual evidence. Social control depends upon citizens and officers trusting and working with one another to keep our cities safe.

As with most organizations, police departments need to recruit a diverse and qualified workforce and provide rigorous training on how to de-escalate situations and recognize their own implicit biases. Body-worn cameras, civilian review boards and transparency of data also help reduce the use of force and increase trust and accountability.

Above all else, if officers are found to have violated policy, then they should be reprimanded and punished accordingly. Let’s not be naïve that citizens or police alone can solve the factors that give rise to crime, whether economic, familial, political or individual. We live in an age when 140 characters and 20-second video clips capture our imaginations, for good and for bad. Perceptions about police and citizens should be based on the most accurate and available information. Anything less would be a shame. (A longer version of this op-ed was published on DallasNews.com.)

–Dr. Alex R. Piquero, Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology,
Associate Dean for Graduate Programs


Mindfulness and SMART Programs Will Help 500 Dallas Police Officers

Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) and a mindfulness program specific to law enforcement are new tools to help officers who serve on the front lines for the city of Dallas.

Over an 18-month period, the Center for BrainHealth and its Brain Performance Institute will provide the brain-enhancing training to aid police in tactical decision-making; creative, real-time problem-solving; and downregulating emotional responses to stress.

“I have learned, thanks in part to the work of the center, that brain health is like physical health: You have to work to pursue it,” said Lyda Hill, a Dallas entrepreneur and philanthropist whose donation is funding the training. “Following the devastating day of July 7, 2016, I knew I had to do something to help those who take care of us daily. I hope this effort gives the Dallas Police Department the foundation it needs to consistently make the brain health of its officers a top priority.”

SMART strengthens the brain’s frontal networks — regions that support planning, reasoning, decision-making, judgment and emotional management.

The mindfulness program was created in partnership with Hillsboro, Oregon, police Lt. Richard Goerling, a pioneer in the field of mindfulness, preventive mental health care and physical fitness in law enforcement, and Mastermind, a Dallas-based mindfulness meditation studio. It integrates positive psychology with accelerated brain training and the short-form application of mindfulness strategies.

“How a life in law enforcement affects the brain is unknown and woefully understudied among the scientific community,” said Leanne Young PhD’16, executive director of the Brain Performance Institute. “With this work, we hope to not only improve and positively affect the lives of the men and women in blue but also contribute to the body of neuroscience research, advancing the study of brain health among police officers and other first responders.”

–Shelly Kirkland


Low Self-Control Factors Linked to Use of Deadly Force

A divorced police officer experiencing financial trouble is at a heightened risk of using deadly force on the job, according to a University study.

Findings published online in the journal Police Quarterly identified eight factors of poor personal self-control that could affect decision-making in responding to a situation.

The probability of an officer being involved in a shooting increased by 21 percent for any one of these factors:

  • Divorce or separation
  • Paying bills late
  • Loans or debts of more than $1,000
  • A suspended driver’s license
  • Traffic accidents
  • Termination or dismissal from a job
  • Court orders
  • Traffic tickets in the past five years

Dr. Jonathan Maskály, assistant professor of criminology, and Dr. Alex Piquero, Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology, co-wrote the study with researchers at other universities after analyzing the responses of 1,935 Philadelphia Police Department officers. Five percent of the officers had been involved in shootings. Being aware of the link between low self-control and use of deadly force can help departments screen candidates and monitor current officers. “Done well, this should help departments recruit and retain the best officers who can work with the community to keep our cities safe,” Maskály told The Dallas Morning News.

–Kim Horner