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Why do people support police using force? Religion is part of the answer

The past 24 hours has put police violence to the forefront of our public debate.

Post something about these shootings on your Facebook page or other social media and you'll quickly see the divide over how the public views the use of force by police.

Why such differences in opinion? Sociologists and criminologists who have examined public opinion toward police have found that support for the use of force is driven by one's stake in the system.

Who tends to support the police? Whites. Males. College graduates.

Who are less supportive? Racial and ethnic minorities. Women. Lower income groups.

The General Social Survey taps support for the police by asking,

Are there any situations you can imagine in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen?

White, male college graduates are the most likely to say that they would approve. Over 80 percent of college graduates say that it's ok for police to use force, compared to only around 60 percent of high school graduates. Men are more in favor of police than women. Three-quarters of whites back police use of force, compared to less than half of blacks.

What about religion? The most supportive are Mainline Protestants and Jews. Catholics and those in historically black churches are the least supportive. But these percentages don't show the true effect of religion on attitudes toward police; they are driven by differences in status, race, and education.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

We can control for these differences through statistical models that allow us to estimate support for the use of force holding each tradition at the same level of education and other demographics.


The adjusted percentages show how much of the original differences between groups is due to differences in social status. The differences become much smaller after we adjust for differences in education and other factors.

Still, there are differences, and these differences show the real effect of religion.

Support for the police is highest among those who attend an historically white Protestant church. Controlling for education differences, evangelicals aren't any different than their mainline cousins.

Catholics, black Protestants, and those of minority religions are the least supportive of police. This may be due to differences in belief, but it may also be because these groups are historically the "out groups" in American society.

Religion is intertwined with social status, and it is status (including race) that drives support for the police. But the story is more than that. Controlling for differences in status we see that the dominant religious group in American society---historically white churches---are the most supportive of police using force.

Note: Portions of the column were published in 2015, a year after the events in Furguson, Missouri. 

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  1. It was only fiction, but Paul Newman made a film titled, “Ft. Apache: The Bronx.” In the film, he used unorthodox methodologies to practice law enforcement in a way to defuse and de-escalate potentially explosive situations. Unrealistic? somewhat, but not completely. Certainly the notion of a more holistic/creative approach to policing is an idea worth considering. It often seems police feel pressed to “solve” the problem “now.” This tendency needs to be addressed. I am generally supportive of law enforcement officers, but not without reservation. For the record, I am a white male with some college education short of a degree, and of relatively low income, what ever those facts mean.

  2. EVERYONE but the very few of us out there who are anarchists support “police using force”.

  3. Police may need to use force, but rarely. Much more rarely than they do now. They need to focus on DE-escalating, rather escalating tension as they do so often with their screaming directions, immediately yanking out and pointing their guns at the civilians, etc.

    When I’ve seen videos of simple traffic stops, it’s the cops who escalate, not the victims. When the cops scream like that, they get an adrenaline surge, as do the frightened victims. In those situations, it’s harder for anyone to behave as rationally as they normally do, and that’s simple biology.

    I am just sickened by the killings in my home state, Minnesota. Mr. Castile was murdered 2 days ago by a cop who escalated as simple traffic stop. It’s horrible and inexcusable.

  4. I would agree and add the following caveats. The proliferation of gun carrying and inability to determine who has a gun likely carries the increased sense of risk for an officer. I come from Canada and when we had a national gun registry it was regularly checked in responding to calls. I also believe that officers are taught to consider traffic stops a high risk policing situation. But also
    the factor of accountability. Do police have to file reports for drawing their
    sidearm even if not discharged? Are tapes of policing situations regularly reviewed by supervisors?

  5. Penance is a biblical word, and from that we invented the term penitentiary where we used to throw a man in a hole, throw a bible in after him, and not let him out till he found jesus. the bible is all about punishment, god kills 158 times in the bible (whole cities and cultures), he has people kill for him to prove their loyalty to him. all but one ten commandment is punishable by death and was actually carried out in our early colonies. christian like punishment, they believe most people would be better if they were punished. They root for the end times where all of us infidels will be punished with horrible torture and death while they go free and live in their christian utopia, and that’s ok with them.

    I visited a closed down prison in Philly that is now a museum, still had the crumbling cells with little windows. I asked a visitor what she thought about it, she told me everyone who does anything wrong should be locked away from good people like her forever.

    This article does not go far enough, probably didn’t want to upset anyone. The reason white christians like police using force is they think those people deserve it, and should be locked away.

    I was trained as a cop, they told us, use minimum force necessary, and our job was not to punish but to take people into custody and let the courts do their work. all of our training was how to restrain people. Now they teach how to beat people to death when you’re pissed, it’s ok to kick them and slam their skulls on the pavement, and apparently it’s ok to put your gun in the middle of a mans chest while he is laying harmlessly on the ground, and pull the trigger 6 times.

  6. “Easy Access / Guns and Ammo / No Restrictions / Open Carry”
    “Army Weapons / Racial Profiles / Shoot-First Mindset / Escalation”

    Dueling epitaphs.

  7. I have several friends on the NYPD. At least two of them work in neighborhoods real estate agents optimistically call “in transition”. None of them have ever had to draw their firearms in the line of duty in 10-20 years on the force. Its a police culture thing. Its not just a defusing and de-escalation of conflicts, but also preferring non-lethal force. It comes down to the concept that the police are an occupying force more likely to harass the locals rather than serve them.

    In Ferguson, you had an outright predatory law enforcement/judicial system designed to shake down the poor and working class populations with onerous fines, ticket quotas and due process shenanigans. What you are seeing is cops crossing the line, on camera, with no accountability. Municipalities deliberately choosing to overlook or minimize bad conduct by police (usually for political reasons). That just leads to a spiraling increase in public hostility to the police. Especially among minorities/poor.

  8. Depends on whether you know anyone on the receiving end of it.

  9. EVERYONE is on the receiving end of it.

    Unless you’re one of the few like me you oppose it.

    But if you believe in the legitimacy of any sort of state WHATSOEVER, then you ACCEPT the idea of “police using force” at least in SOME circumstances, because police force is NECESSARY for the function of a state.

    A drug dealer who will not stop nor will he accept arrest with out a fight? A millionaire who openly refuses to pay any sort of taxes and will not submit to arrest without either fighting himself or using his private security to fight for him? Even a relatively simple thing like someone who refuses to pay child support, and refuses to surrender his money or appear in court without a fight? Chances are, if you support the idea of having a state, laws, and rules, you support police using force in at least one of the above scenarios.

    Now if you’re an anarchist totally opposed to any use of force that violates a non-aggression principle, that’s a totally different case, and I can understand why such people do not support “police using force”. But, largely, almost EVERYONE falls outside of the anarchist sphere, and EVERYONE agrees that police force is justified in supporting the laws that they personally agree with. Because police force is necessary for the enforcement of laws.

  10. “Chances are, if you support the idea of having a state, laws, and rules, you support police using force in at least one of the above scenarios.”

    You are using a very loose version of “police using force” than commonly discussed. Its not police force that is the subject of argument. Its excessive and unnecessary force. Lethal force where inappropriate. Police force used to harass rather than serve the public.

    Its also social class thing. You don’t see the same level of harassment by police in middle class and wealthy neighborhoods as you do in poor ones. The function is seen as different. In those places the police are there “to keep the riff-raff out” while in the poor neighborhoods there are there to “keep them in their place”.

  11. “You are using a very loose version of ‘police using force’ than commonly discussed. Its excessive and unnecessary force.”

    Your definition is NOT what the article used, NOR is it what the SURVEY QUESTION in the relevant survey used.

    The survey question was “Are there any situations you can imagine in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen?”

    Note: “Are there ANY situations”.

    By the wording of the above, unless you advocate for a complete absence of any sort of police force with the right to EVER initiate force on another being (in which case, you’re probably of the minority AnCap persuasion) you should answer the question given by the poll with “Yes”.

    Now based on the answers given, I’d say it is safe to say the people answering did not fully understand the question, or they didn’t fully think through the wording, as the respondents /certainly/ did not contain that many people of an anarchistic political bent.

    And yeah, you can argue that the poll’s wording choice is therefore stupid, which was essentially what I was doing initially, but still, based on the wording of the question, anyone who believes any state is justified should answer that question with the affirmative, which is EXACTLY what my initial post said.

    The question did not mention excessive force, or lethal force (actually based on the term “striking”, which is seldom lethal, it might be only asking about non-lethal force), it is talking about force in /general/.

    Overall, the wording used in the article and survey IS the wording used in the article and survey, it is not the wording you imagined to be there and contains none of the words like “excessive” or “lethal” that you (and likely a good chunk of the survey respondents) subconsciously inserted into it.

    I somehow doubt that everyone who said there was /no/ situation /ever/ in which a police officer was justified in striking an adult male citizen would bat an eye at a cop striking a man who refused to pay taxes and actively resisted attempts to arrest him.

  12. Very good points. FYI, there is not even a single use of the word ‘penance” in the bible.

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