PSU’S Kimberly Kahn weighs in as part of a international commission on police violence

Greyscale photo of police officers carrying zip ties and a light in the background

A commission of researchers released a timely report late last month that lays out recommendations for reducing the inappropriate use of force by police officers. 

Portland State University Associate Professor of Psychology Kimberly Kahn and 13 other social and behavioral science experts in police violence contributed to the report on behalf of the Police Violence Commission of the International Society for Research on Aggression.

“The commission was created in direct response to the killing of George Floyd last summer,” said Kahn, who has worked with the Portland Police Bureau and other police departments on reducing stereotypes and implicit biases within policing. “The goal was to pull together an analysis of the empirical literature on aggression, violence and intergroup relations to better understand the issue of excessive force by police, and provide some recommendations based on the existing science.” 

The commission’s findings, released the same week that police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of Floyd’s murder, include an intertwined set of recommendations that get at the multifaceted issues contributing to excessive force by police. 

Dr. Kimberly Kahn
Dr. Kimberly Kahn

“We can’t really pull one thing out as the singular explanation of excessive police force or identify only one route for change,” Kahn said. “Every interaction has multiple layers. You can’t only do more training, you also have to have broader policy reform to address this complex issue.” 

The group’s recommendations are aimed at law enforcement agencies, policymakers and other researchers who might be able to assist in furthering the work. They are: 

  • Implement public policies that can reduce inappropriate use of force directly and through the reduction of broader burdens on the routine activities of police officers.
  • For officers frequently engaged in use-of-force incidents, ensure that best-practice, evidence-based treatments are available and required.
  • Improve and increase the quality and delivery of non-coercive conflict resolution training for all officers, along with police administrative policies and supervision that support alternatives to the use of force, both while scaling back the militarization of police departments.
  • Continue the development and evaluation of multi-component interventions for police departments, but ensure they incorporate evidence-based, field-tested components.
  • Expand research in the behavioral and social sciences aimed at understanding and managing use-of-force by police and reducing its disproportionate impact on minoritized communities and expand funding for these lines of inquiry.

Kahn highlighted the need for more study and more data to fully understand the problem of excessive force and how to best remediate it. 

“One of the issues is that we don’t have nationally collected and standardized measures for things like the use of force by police in the United States,” Kahn said. “When you don’t have a federally uniform database that tracks these issues, it makes studying it very difficult. What is measured matters. When we don’t even measure something, we’re saying it doesn’t matter.” 

A social psychologist, Kahn runs the Gender, Race, and Sexual Prejudice (GRASP) Lab at PSU and has worked with both the Portland Police Bureau and the Center for Policing Equity in conducting research and developing interventions to reduce bias within policing. 

“My work has shown how subtle stereotypes about racial minorities affect police behavior and make it more likely for interactions to escalate in severity,” Kahn said. 

The report is especially relevant for a city like Portland that is grappling with the role that police should play when it comes to responding to mental health crises. Kahn is hopeful that systemic change is possible.

“This can be a watershed moment for real change,” she said. “We want to encourage the momentum that is out there right now, the energy and potential for investment to improve policing. This is the time for experts to share their experience and aid change in any way that we can.”