Following several high-profile police shootings of Black Americans, renewed debate has focused on race as a predictor of police violence. Past research has been inconsistent on this score. Some scholars argue that socioeconomic issues are better predictors of police-related violence than are race and ethnicity.
To test relationships between complaints of excessive use of police violence and racial/ethnic population demographics, allowing for social and mental health variables.
We examined records from all 195 municipal police departments in California to identify complaints of excessive force by police and tested for associations between such complaints and health, socio-economic and demographic data from county records, using multivariate analyses.
There was no difference in reporting between communities according to Black or White American residency proportions; communities with more Latino Americans were less likely to complain formally of excessive use of police force. The strongest associate of complaints to police departments that their employees had used excessive force was experiencing mental distress in the community.
Our findings are limited by reliance on complaints to police authorities rather than actual incidence of police use of excessive force and by having to map municipal data on to county data, but the finding that factors other than or in addition to any inherent police problems may contribute to excessive use of force by the police offers new lines for remedying the problem. In particular, our findings suggest that more training for police in recognising and managing mental distress and more provision of mental health experts to work alongside police would be worth evaluating as a next step.