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"Fear Is in Your Eyes": Threat Perceptions and the Use of Deadly Force by Police Officers

"Fear Is in Your Eyes": Threat Perceptions and the Use of Deadly Force by Police Officers


This is a collaborative study between the Hebrew University (Dr. Renana Keydar) and the Poetic Media Lab at Stanford University (Prof. Amir Eshel with the assistance of Ms. Quinn Dombrowski) . In this study we aim to explore and analyze testimonial narratives of police officers who used force against civilians. Drawing on both legal testimonies as well as cultural narratives, both fictional and non-fictional, we aim to perform close and distant reading of large corpus of testimonies of duty holders in both Israel and the US. The goal of this comparative, interdisciplinary study is to understand and evaluate the impact of subjective threat and fear perceptions in contested cases of lethal use of force in deeply divided societies.


A central arena of human rights violations globally is the use of force by security forces - police officers and soldiers - against civilian populations, oftentimes ethnic, racial or religious minority groups in society. The frequently cited justification for the decision to use force, sometimes even lethal, is the perception of threat.

Police has extensive powers to use force against civilians. The killing of a civilian is also within the legal and legitimate range of force as long as the circumstances in which the police officer acts to protect human life or his own life is in danger. The justification for the decision to use force - from exercising the authority to detain a person for questioning to lethal shooting in a demonstration - is legally found in the description of the objective circumstances under which the police officer acted.

The literature describes at length the central role of the police officer's threat perception. These feelings - of danger, fear or distress - are also important in justifying the decision to use force.

While the emphasis in previous studies is on the degree of external threat posed to the security forces, primarily by analyzing individual case reports, our study takes a broader approach, both theoretically and methodologically. The present study seeks to examine the social and organizational structures leading to the use of lethal force against civilians by examining the protocols of the State Commission of Inquiry to investigate clashes between security forces and Israeli civilians during the events of October 2000, in which 13 Arab citizens and a resident of Gaza were killed (the Or Commission). 

The Or Commission held 92 public hearings and invited to give testimony not only witnesses and security forces involved in the specific incidents, but also politicians, senior police officers, public figures, and journalists. Therefore, examining the totality of the transcripts of the Commission’s hearings will enable us to understand in depth the various aspects of the threat perception that lead to the use of force against civilians. We seek to examine the social and organizational perceptions reflected in the testimonies of the police officers vis-à-vis those which emerge from other groups who testified before the Commission. Through an empirical semantic examination of the corpus, we intend to point out the ways in which social constructs influence decision-making regarding the use of force against civilians.

Corpus and Methodology:

The main source for examining the questions at the focus of the study are the protocols of the Or Commission deliberations and the final report of the Commission, which was published in August 2003, and holds more than 700 pages of findings and recommendations. While the Commission's report is available for online review, the protocols and testimonies are not easily accessible for review. The study presents for the first time an analysis of corpus which has not been available as such until now.

The research question will be examined using a relatively new empirical methodology in the legal world - automatic text analysis using topic modeling and sentiment analysis. These computational methods make it possible to uncover the hidden semantic themes and to identify the emotional and subjective affects expressed by the various voices in the corpus, thus providing an empirical-computational basis for examining the construction of threat perceptions of the security forces and the other entities that testified before the committee.
Despite the potential inherent in automatic analysis of texts to assist in legal research, the use of machine learning methodologies in the field of law is still in its infancy. In recent years, a number of studies have been conducted in the field of public law that have used computational tools to analyze different corpora such as a database of constitutions or constitutional debates in the US Congress. However, the potential is far from exhaustion. In the Israeli field, our study is a first study of its kind to use computational, NLP-based methods for empirical legal research in the field of public law and human rights conducted in Hebrew. As such, the research presented here is innovative both in the corpus it examines and in the methodologies it implements in order to establish a deeper understanding of serious human rights violations.

Primary Investigators: