Conformity and Police Brutality

THE MUNDANE EXPLANATION FOR ABUSIVE POLICE PRACTICES

I want to offer a brief response to Redditt Hudson’s article posted in Vox today.

Hudson, a former St. Louis police officer explains a theory shared with him by a former colleague. “On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.” He then goes on to recount how that fifteen percent of abusers exert a disproportionate influence on the other seventy. This pattern of abuse is then reinforced and entrenched by what some activists refer to as the “Blue Wall,” the so called unwritten code of loyalty between police officers that precludes the noble fifteen from confronting abuse.

The 15:15:70 ratio is intriguing. This is most likely an example of pop sociology, the result of years of observation that was never subjected to analysis. There is, however, reason to believe that even if the percentages are off, the rule is reliable enough. Indeed, the results from the famous (infamous?) Milgram experiment revealed that about sixty-five percent of participants were willing to administer a lethal dose of electricity upon the direction from authority figures.

Of course, the officer/subject dynamic is much more complicated than any sterile social psychology experiment. Certainly, the authority inherent in the badge is analogous to that inferred by the lab coat in the Milgram Experiment. The legitimacy of that authority may remain fixed from the point of view of fellow police officers, but in communities subject to long term abuse, that legitimacy becomes tarnished, faded or non-existent. The suspect may see no authoritative reason to comply with the demands of an officer whom he believes is likely to hurt him. He may flee from the officer, or physically resist any attempt by the police to put hands on him. As the officers involved understand their authority to be legitimate while the subject does not, a conflict cycle is likely to take place. Such conflict cycles will almost always end badly for the agent with the least power, namely the suspect.

In-group/out-group dynamics are also variables between the police and subjugated communities. Both sides see the other as the enemy, one not to be trusted. This “us against them” mentality translates into the “Blue Wall” code in which comrades in arms support each other in the face of the enemy, even when that comrade is in the wrong. On the other hand, a similar ontology exists on the part of communities that value codes of silence, the importance of “not being a snitch” and non-cooperation with the police. The racial connotations of this in-group/out-group system in the United States only exacerbates the problem as police profile potential criminals based on melanin characteristics.

The participants may also understand their roles in emotional and/or transcendent terms. Between the participants we have an emotional tempest of anger, desperation and fear. The police also understand that the abuse they inflict is justified by a transcendent understanding of “protecting the public” from criminals, even predators. It’s us against them, and they are dangerous. Culturally, a whole entertainment industry is premised on the brutal cop who is willing to break the rules, to ignore civil and human rights, in order to keep the people safe from the unscrupulous animals preying on the innocent. Everyone they torture or abuse is guilty, every violation of Constitutional rights justified in the end. In the 1940’s, Lewis Coser demonstrated that this combination of raw emotion and transcendent goals was violently inflammatory.

So there’s incredible pressure on the seventy percent to conform to the abusive fifteen over the ethical fifteen. The job is, after all, dangerous. Each officer must be prepared for the worst case scenario, which encourages this us against them mentality. Each officer is obligated to have the back of the other because each officer wants and needs the same in return. The ethical fifteen have little pull on the whole, especially when even the ranking officers feel obligated to protect their own institutional interests by covering up mistreatment, or defining the situation in terms sympathetic to the police.

Yet, as Hudson points out, the ethical fifteen percent constitute thousands of officers who are willing to stand up for what is right. We also have to acknowledge that, with support, there are many among the seventy percent who will do the same. Milgram did quite a few variations of his original experiment. In one variation, the subject expected to administer the shocks witnessed two confederates refusing to do so. With this social support in place, the subject’s obedience fell to a mere ten percent. We need to find a way to put these virtuous fifteen at the forefront of police culture and maybe, just maybe, we might see some progress on this front.

Hudson mentions his organization, the National Association of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability as one such group of the virtuous fifteen.

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