RTI uses cookies to offer you the best experience online. By clicking “accept” on this website, you opt in and you agree to the use of cookies. If you would like to know more about how RTI uses cookies and how to manage them please view our Privacy Policy here. You can “opt out” or change your mind by visiting: http://optout.aboutads.info/. Click “accept” to agree.


The Effects of Law Enforcement Use of Force on Individuals and Communities

Use of force is defined as any physical use of force, regardless of whether it is lawful, reasonable, or necessary. This includes but is not limited to, bodily force, restraint tactics, invasive searches, firearms, police dogs, or the use of conducted energy devices, such as tasers.

The past decade has seen an upward trend in deaths and injuries among persons of color subject to police use of force. Since 2010, the total number of annual deaths from contact with law enforcement has increased by 101% and 117% in Black and Latino populations, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System.

Increased access to video footage has heightened the awareness of and response to these tragic events among the public in recent years. However, local organizers and impacted families have been calling attention to the crisis for many years, emphasizing the need for research on the use of police force, how it impacts communities, and what improvements could be made.

RTI International works with federal and city governments, law enforcement agencies, and police officers to assess and offer evidence-based recommendations to improve law enforcement agencies’ involvement with and impact on their communities. Our research includes

  • producing recommended actions for local communities to consider when allocating police funding;
  • evaluating the Seattle Police Department's performance management system around equity, accountability, and quality in policing;
  • partnering with cities in North Carolina and South Carolina to rethink how law enforcement should respond to 911 calls for service;
  • evaluating strategies used as alternatives to law enforcement response in communities;
  • identifying barriers and developing strategies for equity issues among law enforcement agencies, including recruiting women officers; and
  • crafting recommendations around solving more violent crimes in collaboration with the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The effect of use of force on communities

Understanding and addressing social determinants of health—or non-medical social, behavioral, environmental, and economic factors that affect the health of individuals and communities—is a top priority for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). How use of force affects the health of communities—especially those with relatively high Black and Brown populations—is particularly relevant in this effort.

In May 2022, President Joseph R. Biden issued Executive Order 14074, encouraging the adoption of equitable, community-based policing policies to improve public trust and public safety. In response to this executive order, RTI supported the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation’s (ASPE’s) research review on the effects of use of force and other police activities—whether lawful or unlawful—on communities’ physical, mental, and public health. Other police activities include verbal tactics used to compel compliance with officer’s commands—such as aggressive commands or intimidation—and interactions that are perceived to be biased, unfair, or overly punitive.

This report examines the impacts of use of force on physical and mental health, as well as outcomes that are closely related to health and health care-seeking, such as educational outcomes and trust in health care institutions. It also includes the perspectives of community stakeholders and advocacy groups from HHS-facilitated listening sessions.

The report reviews research on the impacts of (1) direct use of force and other police activities on individuals who experience it; and (2) vicarious, or indirect, use of force and other police activities on individuals and communities.

The report includes the following key findings:

  • Black individuals and communities experience use of force and other police activities more than any other racial or ethnic group, with Black men facing the highest risk of fatal force. Black women, American Indian/Alaska Native men and women, and Hispanic men have a predicted higher lifetime risk of lethal use of force relative to White men or women. For all racial and ethnic groups, the risk of being killed is concentrated among people aged 20 to 35.
  • Historically marginalized groups—including LGBTQI+, persons with mental illness, those who inject drugs, undocumented immigrants, and unhoused individuals—are at high risk of exposure to direct or vicarious use of police force, especially with the intersectionality of race. 
  • Neighborhoods with lower incomes, higher poverty rates, and disproportionate racial or ethnic minority populations are at higher risk for lethal use of force.
  • Use of force and other police activities appear to be associated with poor mental health (posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts), but the absence of contextual measures of community violence exposure may confound such associations.
  • Exposure to information on fatal use of force on Black individuals through social media, word of mouth, and traditional media is associated with poor mental health for Black persons.
  • Both direct and vicarious use of force and other police activities are associated with poor physical health and lack of trust in medical institutions, lower performance in school, and heightened fear and distrust of law enforcement officials. 

Recommendations for future research on police use of force and community impacts

The report recommends future research with more robust designs, including conducting longitudinal research to better understand the long-term impacts and collecting information on individual and community characteristics to isolate effects and outcomes. In addition, more nuanced measures of use of force and other police activities are needed to deepen our understanding of different types of exposures and the mechanisms that may be related to health and mental health impacts.

Future research should expand our knowledge about the impacts on marginalized communities—including transgender and other sexual and gender minority populations, individuals with disabilities, unhoused individuals, and individuals with mental illness—and continue to examine risks to persons of color, and the intersectional nature of these impacts. In addition, research should examine programs that provide alternative responses to law enforcement that have proliferated across the country and the relationship to use of force and other police activities.

Learn more about RTI’s research on improving public safety through evidence-based policing.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Kristin Stainbrook (Senior Justice and Behavioral Health Researcher) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.