Officer-Involved Killings and the Repression of Protest

By Traci Burch (Northwestern University)

It is clear from the news, and perhaps even from personal experience, that many citizens are mobilizing to express outrage and demand justice in the wake of officer-involved killings.  However, despite the fact that officer-involved killings are the focus of such an important social movement, very little work attempts to explain the circumstances that lead the public to protest the deaths of particular victims. In my UAR paper, I leverage my own collection of data on individuals killed by police, combined with the Collaborative Multi-racial Political Survey (CMPS) and demographic data, to show that officer-involved killings can have complex effects on protest. I find that for most people, living near an officer-involved killing, even of low threat victims, does not affect protest. However, for young Black people, killings of Black victims in their communities can repress protest unless that victim was not posing a threat to police.

Protest depends on the perception of grievances, the capacity to mobilize, and the structure of political opportunities (McAdam 1982; Meyer 2004). I argue that officer-involved killings of Black victims offer important clues about the openness of the political system, or the lack of political opportunities, to Black demands for racial justice. I also discuss the high level of repression faced by protesters against police violence to establish that protests of officer-involved killings are costly over and above the normal problems of collective action (such as coordination). I use works by Oliver and Davenport to argue that officer-involved killings themselves might be viewed as repressive, even though they do not occur in the context of a protest, because they are “personal integrity violations” by the state (Davenport 2007: 11).

To examine the effects of officer-involved killings on protest, I use a discontinuity design: I compare protest rates among people who lived in a community where people were killed by police before they answered the CMPS to protest rates among people who lived in a community where people were killed by police after they answered the CMPS. I compared the effects of exposure to any victim or just Black victims. I also examined the importance of whether the killing was justified and whether the incident went viral (as measured by Google Trends). The comparison groups (people exposed to killings in their communities before vs. after taking the survey) were similar across many personal characteristics such as educational attainment, age, partisan identification, as well as across community characteristics such as police performance, racial composition, and organizational density.

It is important to highlight that this research establishes a coding scheme for classifying officer-involved killings according to whether they are legally justified. In Tennessee v. Garner (1985), the Supreme Court found that an officer shooting a person to defend themselves or another person from imminent danger to be a legitimate use of lethal force, but that lethal force also may be used to prevent escape when “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Further developments in Federal and State law also establish the dangerousness of victims as important for determining the legitimacy of the use of lethal force {Tennenbaum, 1994 #1119}. We coded hundreds of victims of officer-involved killings based on both victim dangerousness as well as officer mistakes or misconduct.

I found that, despite the mass mobilization in response to certain officer-involved killings in recent years, living near an officer-involved killing does not affect the likelihood of attending a protest for most people. Officer-involved killings seem to affect protest only among young Black respondents: protest rates for young Black people exposed to an officer involved killing before taking the CMPS were 8.1 percentage points lower than that of people exposed to a killing after taking the survey, a statistically significant difference. However, the repressive effect of local officer-involved killings goes away for young Black respondents exposed to Black, low threat victims at the local level because of increasing protest activity among people exposed to those killings before they took the survey.

My article and its findings make several contributions to the understanding of politics and social movements. First, although thousands of protests of officer-involved killings have taken place, the findings presented here suggest that those thousands of protests will target only a handful of Black, low threat victims, which is consistent with victim-level studies of protests of officer-involved killings (Burch n.d.; Streeter 2019). Second, I also show who is likely to be mobilized after an officer-involved killing in their community. Third, I show how the political opportunity structure is very important for shaping protests of police violence, focusing attention on the importance of repression to the calculations of individuals who are contemplating engaging in contentious politics. Finally, in linking officer-involved killings to Davenport’s theory of personal integrity violations, I show that police violence itself is an important signal of the openness of the political system and can be repressive.

Read the full UAR article here.

Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash

Author Biography

Traci Burch is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and a research professor at the American Bar Foundation. She is the author of Trading Democracy for Justice: Criminal Convictions and the Decline of Neighborhood Political Participation, published by the University of Chicago Press and coauthor of Creating a New Racial Order, published in 2012 by Princeton University Press. Her other publications appear in Perspectives on Politics, Political Behavior, and Law and Society Review.