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Public Perceptions of Use of Force

Public Perceptions of Use of Force

Portland State University

Synopsis: A randomized survey study revealed a disparity between the public perception of the number of use of force events and the officially recorded data.


Community Need

In order to be successful in their efforts to enhance public safety, the police must be able to develop and maintain a positive working relationship with members of the public. A key factor in developing and sustaining police-citizen partnerships is legitimacy: People are more willing to cooperate, report crimes, and comply with directives when they believe that the police are trustworthy and fair. Perhaps more than any other behavior, the use of force by police officers has the potential to decrease public trust. While most citizens recognize the occasional need for force, the overall frequency of force used by police and force that is perceived to be excessive are clearly of concern to the public.


The current study sought to assess public perceptions regarding the frequency of force used by members of the Portland Police Bureau and determine whether those beliefs are consistent with officially recorded data on force used by officers in recent years.


Primary Research Question(S)

The study sought to answer three questions:

  1. How much force was used by Portland police in recent years?
  2. What do residents know about recent use of force?
  3. Do Portlanders over or underestimate police-involved shootings?

Research Design

Researchers drew on data from the 2012 Portland Criminal Justice Survey, which was conducted by the Criminal Justice Research Institute at Portland State University. The survey used a multi-stage sampling procedure to distribute their survey. The researchers randomly chose 40 neighborhoods in Portland, which were then analyzed to verify that they represented the overall demographics of the city. A random sample of 150 addresses was then pulled from each of the 40 neighborhoods, resulting in a final sample of 6,000 residential locations in Portland. Households were mailed a postcard alerting them to the forthcoming survey, and then were sent the survey instrument, a reminder postcard, and then a final reminder. Residents were asked to have the adult with the most recent birthday complete the survey. As of July 11, 2012, researchers received 2,461 completed surveys for an overall response rate of 42.2%.


The error attributed to sampling for the survey as a whole is +/- 2.47 percentage points (95% confidence level).


Research Findings

  • According to official force reports maintained by the Portland Police Bureau and analyzed for this study, incidents involving use of force by officers against citizens/suspects fell 59% between 2007 and 2011.
  • Over 60% of Portland residents surveyed believed that use of force by local police increased over the past five years. Less than 1% believed use of force incidents decreased commensurate with police data.
  • Although the vast majority of respondents correctly believe that fewer than 25 police-involved shootings occurred in 2011, 25% of residents grossly overestimated the number of police involved shootings in 2011.

Main Implications

Portland police data indicates that officers are using force considerably less often than they did five years ago. Changes like this could enhance police legitimacy in the eyes of the public, a necessary ingredient for successful police-community partnerships addressing crime. In order to have an impact, however, the public has to: 1) be informed about the decline, and 2) trust that the data have been accurately collected and analyzed. To enhance their legitimacy and public trust, police agencies with positive trends and results need to be more proactive in disseminating their findings using traditional media sources, websites, social media, and community organizations. Second, to address potential lapses in public confidence, law enforcement agencies should strive for greater transparency and oversight in the collection and analysis of their use of force data.


Stewart, G., Henning, K. R., & Renauer, B. (2012). Public perceptions regarding the use of force by police in Portland, Oregon.