The Psychology Behind Police Brutality

Police Officer

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Have you ever wondered about the psychology behind police brutality? Why is it that some police officers can go their whole careers without ever using excessive force, while others seem to be caught in a cycle of using more force than is required sometimes leading to death? Furthermore, what are the factors that influence a police officer to use excessive force?

These questions and more have been on the minds of many as acts of police brutality seem to be occurring more regularly, and racial tensions over the inequality regarding the victims of police brutality have emerged.

What Is Police Brutality?

Police Brutality

Police brutality refers to the excessive use of force by a police officer against a victim or victims that is deemed to go beyond the level required to sustain life, avoid injury, or control a situation.

While it may seem based on recent events that police brutality is common and prevalent, it is actually the case that police brutality is the exception rather than the norm. Most police officers only use force as a last resort, to protect the lives of others or their own.

Why Police Brutality Occurs

In order to solve the problem of police brutality, it is necessary to understand the underlying factors that lead to it happening in the first place. In fact, there are a number of different factors that may play a role, not all of which have to do with the underlying personality of the officer who engages in the act.

However, each of them can be considered from a psychological standpoint or psychological lens. This helps us to understand how to fix the problem from a psychological view.

Individual-Level Factors

What are the individual-level factors that contribute to police brutality? These can be understood as those that originate from the offending officer. Some examples of individual-level factors are given below.

Personality Traits and Mental Disorders

Personality traits or mental disorders of the offending officer may play a role. For example, officers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from job-related stressors and trauma may have an increased startle response, a tendency toward suspicion, and problems with aggression. These traits can make it more likely that they will overreact and use deadly force when not necessary.

Personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder (APD) may make police officers more likely to engage in excessive use of force or to feel that they do not need to follow the rules.

Personal problems experienced by police officers may increase the likelihood of them engaging in excessive force, such as relationship problems or other stressful life events.

Organizational-Level Factors

What are the organizational-level factors that contribute to police brutality? These can include policies of the police department or the general working environment.

If the police department sets limits for the use of force that leave police officers vulnerable to using their own discretion (in other words, limits that are too vague or lenient), then the likelihood that officers will use excessive force is going to increase.

In addition, if the general working environment of the police department is such that excessive use of force is not punished or reprimanded, then that sends the message to the police force that it's an acceptable part of their job description.

In other words, the use of force becomes legitimized because everyone does it and nobody says anything about it.

This, despite the fact that if a civilian were to inflict the same level of force on another individual in the same situation, it would be considered to be a violation of the law. Since police officers enforce the law, they may end up feeling as though they are above it when no punishment occurs.

Examples of Police Brutality

In order to understand the problem of police brutality, it is helpful to consider some fo the more prominent examples that have been made into examples in recent times. Below are some of the more well-known cases and issues surrounding them.

Ahmaud Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery was a 25-year-old African American man who was killed while jogging in Glynn County Georgia. Arbery died when he was chased and then fatally shot by Travis McMichael who was accompanied by his father and another person in vehicles. The death of Arbery and problems with the investigation began discussion about the problem of racial profiling and inequality in the United States.

Breonna Taylor

Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old African American woman who died after being shot in her apartment on March 13th, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her death was the result of a search warrant that was being executed by white police officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department.

Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, thought the officers entering the apartment were intruders and fired a warning shot at them which hit one officer in the leg. In return, the officers fired 32 shots leaving Walker unharmed.

While the City of Louisville agreed to pay $12 million to Taylor's family, the three police officers involved were not indicted on charges related to Taylor's death. The incident led to subsequent protests throughout the United States.

George Floyd

George Floyd was a 46-year-old African American man who died on May 25th, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after being arrested for using a counterfeit $20 bill. During the arrest, police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck while Floyd was handcuffed and lying on his face.

Bystanders who tried to intervene were prevented from doing so by other officers. Prior to his death, George Floyd complained that he could not breathe and that he was going to die. The entire incident became public when video footage shot by onlookers was released to the public. Autopsies revealed Floyd died as a result of the actions of the officers, and worldwide protests were sparked by the incident.

While these incidents all occurred in 2020, that was not the year that the problems began. Below is a list of incidents from 2014 and there were many more to follow.

Dontre Hamilton

On April 30, 2014 Dontre Hamilton was killed after being shot 14 times by a police officer in a Milwaukee park after the officer tried to pat him down and they engaged in a struggle. Hamilton was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Eric Garner

Eric Garner was killed on July 17, 2014 in New York after he was put in an illegal chokehold by a white police officer. Garner said "I can't breathe" 11 times while he was held down. The officer involved, Daniel Pantaleo, was not charged with a crime. His death sparked protests and "I can't breathe" as a slogan for protest.

John Crawford III

John Crawford III was killed on August 5, 2014 after being shot by a police officer at a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. He had been holding a toy BB gun and there was no confrontation. The officers involved were not charged.

These are only some examples of how excessive use of force or deadly force can lead to death.

Why Racism Turns to Violence

Racism refers to bias held against a person or group of people because of their race or ethnicity. Why does racism turn into excessive use of force or violence among police officers? There are several factors to consider.

Prevalence of Deaths Due to Police Brutality

Research has demonstrated that the risk of being killed as a result of the use of excessive force by police in the United States varies by different social group membership.

Specifically, African American men and women, American Indian/Alaska Native men and women, and Latino men were shown to have a higher lifetime risk of dying due to police violence compared to their white counterparts.

In contrast, Latina women and Asian/Pacific Islander men and women had a lower lifetime risk of dying due to police violence than white counterparts.

The overall lifetime odds were shown to be 1 in 2,000 for men and 1 in 33,000 for women. Overall, the highest risk was shown for Black men, who faced a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by a police officer over the course of their lifetime.

Racial Profiling

Why are Black men and other minorities at a higher risk for dying due to an excessive use of force by police than their white counterparts? Racial profiling may help to explain this phenomenon.

Racial profiling refers to assuming guilt based on race or ethnicity, a problem that mostly affects those individuals who have a higher lifetime risk of dying as a result of police brutality.

For example, police officers may use stereotypes when trying to determine the suspects in a crime, or they may perceive persons of certain races (such as Black men) as more aggressive or threatening when faced with a confrontation.

How to Reduce Police Brutality

How can we work to reduce police brutality? There are a number of different steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of this phenomenon from an organizational and psychological standpoint.

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an order to appoint a task force on 21st century policing. The order included recommendations such as improving training and education, reducing bias among police officers and departments, introducing and improving crisis intervention training, and promoting cultural sensitivity as well as compassion.

Implicit Bias Training

Implicit bias training takes the approach that police officers operate with subconscious biases that they may not even be aware of. When these biases are activated, they may handle a situation differently than they would if, for example, a person was white instead of Black or driving a BMW instead of a beat-up, old pick-up truck.

The premise of this training is to help police officers understand that everyone grows up with subconscious biases, even if you don't feel like you have any prejudice.

The training generally begins with less emotionally charged topics such as whether they themselves felt they had ever been the target of prejudice or bias. But as a whole, implicit bias training is generally aimed at improving the relationship between police and African American civilians.

The goal of the training is not to eliminate biases altogether, but rather to make police officers aware of their biases so that they can manage them in the moment. This is more effective than calling out police officers as racist, as most officers would not consider themselves to fall into that category. Rather, this approach takes the stance that all officers need training.

Those who are better able to manage their biases will be safe, more effective, and fairer in their role as police officers. Learning to stop and slow down when possible, to ask questions such as "Would I treat this situation differently if the target were not Black?" or stopping to imagine the person as a different race can be helpful.

Improved Hiring Practices

One way to reduce the risk of police brutality is to hire individuals who have a lower risk of becoming violent on the job.

Personality psychology can be helpful in making these decisions, as there are assessments that can be used to predict how individuals will respond to stressful situations as well as predict their behavior when on the job.

The use of personality assessments can also be a way to level the playing field for minorities, as it can be an unbiased way to determine who is the best fit for the job.

Improved Disciplinary & Supervision Measures

If a police officer engages in the use of excessive force, or even deadly force, and there is no punishment, this sends the message to the rest of the department that the behavior is tolerated or even acceptable.

Instead, adequate supervision to identify police officers acting in inappropriate ways before that behavior gets out of control, as well as disciplinary measures to send the message that the behavior is unacceptable, are necessary to identify and reprimand police officers who are the most likely to use excessive or deadly force.

The use of such measures will also deter other officers from acting in the same manner, and also set the tone for the overall behavioral expectations of police officers in a department.

In other words, police departments should begin to lead by example, and that starts with enforcing the law for police officers in the same way that it would be for civilians.

Provide Mental Health Support for Police Officers

When police officers are better able to manage their emotions under stress, understand what emotions they are experiencing, and communicate well despite being in high-stress situations, they will be better able to de-escalate complex scenarios rather than to react by using excessive force.

In other words, there is a tipping point at which excessive force begins to be used, and this tipping point can be dialed backward when police officers receive adequate support for their mental health needs.

Additionally, given the fact that PTSD can be a risk factor for the use of excessive or deadly force, providing swift and adequate support to officers who have experienced trauma on the job seems to be a necessary prerequisite to preventing the use of excessive force.

This begins by providing adequate funding to support the mental health of police officers and it also means reducing stigma and encouraging police officers to come forward when they are struggling with their mental health.

As a society in general, mental health is still surrounded by stigma, so it is doubly important that police officers are made to feel that it is acceptable for them to talk about their mental health struggles. Rather than feeling isolated with their trauma, stress, or unmanageable emotions, police officers should be made to feel that they know exactly who to speak to for support and that those supports will be in place and easily accessible when they are most needed.

This also means the police departments should be trained to recognize the symptoms of PTSD so that they can intervene and offer support when an officer my not recognize their own symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Improve Relationships Between Police & Community

In order to reduce the use of excessive and deadly force, it is important to improve the relationships between the police officers and police department and the community, particularly the Black community, as this sector is generally the one most affected by policies and also most affected by police brutality (and subsequent anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress).

This could take the form of programs and initiatives that place police officers out in the community in a helping or educational role instead of a policing role. It could also mean having the police department work with the community or participate in marches and rallies to show their support and understanding. This was seen taking place when some police departments chose to attend Black Lives Matter protests and marches and kneel in support instead of taking a combative stance.

When both the police officers and the racial minorities can begin to see each other as individuals and friends rather than as groups to fear or cast stereotypes upon, then real change will begin to occur in those implicit biases that fuel racial tension among police officers and also a general distrust of the police force among racial minorities.

Conduct Research

In addition to the above measures, it is also necessary to continue to conduct research to understand the psychology behind police brutality. Which personality factors are most likely to correlate with excessive use of force? Which mental disorders show the highest correlation with deadly use of force? What forms of training help most to reduce implicit bias and improve the situation?

Ongoing research on these and other topics is the cornerstone of moving forward and improving the situation when it comes to the excessive use of force by police officers and the disproportionate impact that it has on racial minorities.

Defunding Police Departments

What about defunding police departments? This is a tactic that has been brought up as a solution to police brutality.

Defunding the police means taking money away from funding the police department, and instead sending those funds to invest in the communities that are struggling the most and where most of the policing occurs.

It's very much similar to the concept of directing money toward prevention instead of dealing with problems after the fact. While not a simple solution, there is merit in funding programs and communities that are struggling instead of putting more people behind bars.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding the psychology behind police brutality is the first step toward fixing the problem. Unfortunately, the situation is inherently one that needs to be fixed from the top down, beginning with the systems of government and how they allocate their funding. When better training and education is in place for police officers, as well as better mental health supports, then better outcomes will result.

It's also worth noting that this problem seems to stem mostly in the United States. While other countries may have their own racial tensions (for example, in Canada there is tension between government and Indigenous people), the United States seems to be unique in its problem with police violence, and particularly the use of deadly force in the form of gun violence.

For this reason, the psychology of police brutality is only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece will be understanding the problem of gun violence in the United States, and how it compares to rates of gun violence in other countries.

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  2. D'Amore R. Breonna Taylor: What we know about her death, the investigation and protests. Global News. Updated June 6, 2020.

  3. George Floyd: What happened in the final moments of his life. BBC News. Published July 16, 2020.

  4. CBS News. Former Milwaukee officer not charged in fatal shooting of mentally ill man.

  5. CBS News. Eric Garner case.

  6. CBS News. Family sues over fatal shooting at Ohio Wal-Mart.

  7. Edwards F, Lee H, Esposito M. Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2019, 116 (34) 16793-16798.

  8. Hudson, D. President Obama Creates the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The White House, President Barack Obama. Published December 18, 2014.

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