The continuing surge of news stories about highly questionable police killings of unarmed civilians, is shocking enough on its own account. The victims are mostly young black or brown men but also women and even children. It is important to keep in mind that this pattern of police violence did not start with the advent of smart-phone video or police body or dashboard cameras. A new awareness of a problem is sometimes confused with the idea that it is a new problem. Understanding that police violence is a long-standing problem is made that much more disturbing by the plethora of video evidence streaming across social media on a daily basis.
New media do not create new problems, except for problems of unprecedented exposure or changed patterns of communication. They just facilitate greater awareness of problems we had been less aware of. The line between legitimate police enforcement of the law and illegitimate police use of power has always been blurred. But now, that blurry line is getting exposed in ways never before contemplated.
I have watched countless videos of violent and near violent police-citizen encounters on social media over the past year or two. The most common element that comes through is a widespread emotional distancing of police from citizen – a distinct lack of empathy. Also, an apparent need to intimidate citizens expresses an effort to demonstrate absolute authority and control by officers. A near universal police disdain for persons of color detained on the street or in their vehicles, is routinely displayed. One of the most remarkable factors is what appears to be the unawareness by police of the impact that video exposure of their behavior may have.
As in any profession, you have good cops and you have bad cops. The good ones were good before they became cops. The bad ones may have started out bad, but others only became bad after years of disenchantment with humanity along with being socialized by their senior peers. What many critics of police do not understand is the impact over time that the experiences of being a peace officer can have on a person of good will. Years of exposure to the absurdity and depravity of some human behavior can taint an officer’s outlook on life.
That officer may increasingly come to see every citizen through the lens of all the perverse situations he may have experienced in his career. In the course of time and action, compassion is lost and cynicism is gained. The process is reinforced by interaction with fellow officers with similar experiences and some who were psychopaths from the start. This is very similar to the experience of the war-fighter of an invading force who is confronted daily with situations where he has no basis for distinguishing the enemy from the civilian population and quickly learns to treat everyone as the enemy. For the police officer, of course, the experience is not nearly as intense or concentrated in time.
It is common sociological knowledge that in every profession a certain “in-group” mentality develops from the specialized work and common experience of the members of the profession. We have certainly seen this phenomenon in the medical profession, among lawyers, and even restaurateurs. The consequences for each profession are different, some much more dangerous than others. If we don’t like the patronizing attitude of a restaurant owner, or a poorly prepared meal, we simply don’t go back next time. Not so in our relations with the police officer.
Among doctors and lawyers the concepts of “patient management” and “client management” suggest an attitude where the “professional” believes his special knowledge makes him superior to the person for whom he is supposed to render his professional services. The reluctance of some doctors to fully explain the details of a medical condition or procedure may have as much to do with retaining authority as with maximizing billable hours. This is reinforced by the patronizing attitude that assumes that the patient is not smart enough to understand the arcane knowledge of the physician. Such attitudes and practices are often amplified by communication with colleagues within the profession. Some “group-think” can even rise to the level of social contagion in any profession. Social contagion in police work can easily lead to violence.
Self Selection in the Psychopathology of “Enforcement”
As shown in police body and dashboard cameras or bystander smart phone videos, the behavior of citizens subjected to police violence most often posed no threat to the officer. Well, certainly no physical threat. The sure-fire way to stimulate police aggression or even violence upon yourself is to challenge an officer’s sense of his own authority. In most cases that escalated to violence, the traffic stop was typically for something trivial. In many cases, any indicator of a lack of total subservience of the civilian to the officer is absolutely not tolerated. It becomes the basis for an escalated aggressiveness by the officer(s) followed by unjustified violence and too often, death. Even subsequent submissiveness or subservience is often not enough to satisfy the officer’s threatened sense of power, and he may just keep beating the victim until another officer pulls him off. What gives?
A student in an undergraduate sociology class I taught maybe twenty years ago reported in a classroom discussion, an observation I will never forget. I’ve mentioned this in other posts related to police. This young Black potential officer noted that in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy most of the cadets who he knew from high school, “loved to beat people up.” Even at my advanced age, I too remember the guys in high school who looked for easy targets for their violence. Most of them expressed an interest in either the military or police as career choices. The process by which violence-prone individuals are self-selected into police work remains almost entirely ignored in the recruitment of candidates for law enforcement. It is even common for recruiters to seek out the most aggressive of candidates. The administration of law enforcement across this nation, instead of rooting them out, protects violent officers from discipline, dismissal, or prosecution. A police officer, of course, must be prepared for violence, but he need not prefer it. Too many do.
That brings me to the topic of the psychopathic personality. While some disagreement exists as to the exact components of this condition, certain elements, when present, are extremely dangerous to have in a police officer. One is a total lack of empathy with other human beings, combined with a learned capacity to feign empathy. Another is the pleasure the psychopath gains by inflicting pain on others – it’s a matter of exerting total control over another living being. Serial killers are psychopaths; they exert absolute control by torturing and killing their victims without remorse. I see a similarity here with the behavior of the cop who escalates his aggression at the slightest hint of “insubordination” in the civilian he has detained, continues well beyond any modicum of reason, and sees nothing wrong in his behavior.
High Standards and Critical Functions
Some experts who have used Robert Hare’s checklist  to score politicians and chief executive officers of corporations for psychopathic traits have concluded that a disproportionate number of persons in authority are in fact psychopaths. The argument goes that some of the traits of the psychopath are quite useful in climbing the ladder of power in an organization, and in establishing and keeping control. Psychopaths are fixated on their own power and seek to expand it, unrestrained by any moral principles. That results in a higher proportion of psychopaths in such positions than in the general population. In a somewhat different way, police officers are in positions of authority, less so within their own organization than over an entire population. They are allotted great power and great discretion in exercising it. Since police officers carry weapons as “tools of the trade,” and psychopaths enjoy hurting people, maybe we should carefully screen candidates for police academies to eliminate psychopaths. I fear just the opposite has been happening for a long time. Unfortunately, too many rookies who start out as problem-solving peace officers, gradually lose much of their compassion and take on psychopathic behaviors.
In the company of skilled psychopaths and under conditions of high stress and occasional mortal danger, it is not so difficult for an initially good man or woman to become cynical, ruthless, and uncaring. A compassionate rookie cop can become a practicing psychopath even though he was not so in terms of his original personality. Much of such a transition to “bad cop” is perceived as a survival adaptation to terrible conditions. But in a police department, such collective behavior results from a contagion of violence. How else can we explain blatant cold-blooded murder committed with full knowledge of the fact that it is being videotaped? Many idealistic youth were trained to kill in Iraq or Afghanistan and came back quite disturbed by their experience. Those who easily took to killing were probably closer to the psychopath end of the scale. As with the high-school bully, neither should end up as police officers.
 Typically, “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used to describe the same general personality disorder, a pathology characterized primarily by a ruthless desire to exert absolute control over, and inflict pain on living beings, a lack of empathy or compassion, little if any sense of right and wrong, and a learned skill in masking these traits. Psychopathy is sometimes linked with narcissism and Machiavellianism, and several other traits. See Wikipedia for Robert Hare’s diagnostic Psychopathy Checklist.
 An amusing, if disturbing, account of the struggle to understand psychopathy and the industry that has grown up around it, is told by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. London: Penguin Books, 2011.