Crisis and Confidence: An Experiment on Public Opinion and Officer-involved Shootings

Status: Working Paper

Abstract: Scholars have identified attitudes held by the public about police officers, actions, and policies. Yet, there is little to no political science research to explain what about these officers, actions, and policies causes the public’s attitudes. As officer-involved shootings have acutely taken a prominent position in U.S. political discourse, an understanding of how attitudes form after such incidents is increasingly necessary. An experiment is designed to identify how the public attributes blame after an officer-involved shooting, and the appropriate punishment they believe should be given to each of the actors described in the scenario, as well as what punishment they believe would be given if a similar event occurred in their own community. The experiment presents a narrative of an officer-involved shooting as either an episodic or thematic occurrence. The episodic frame highlights the officer’s sterling credentials. The thematic frame highlights racial differences between the department and the community. Episodic frames are expected to result in less blame, and greater support for more lenient punishment for the officer and his superiors, while thematic frames should result in greater blame and support for more severe punishments for the officer and his superiors. While support for framing effects are inconclusive, there are significant differences in assessing blame and punishments according to respondents’ race and ideology. The findings can shed light on understanding how public opinion of police are affected and the implications of those opinions following an officer-involved shooting.

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