Taser, Gun, and Character: What You Cannot Train

I am tired of all the convenient talk of “more training” and other improvements in the formal management of police practices, as if they were a mere problem of technical engineering. They are not. The most important quality of police officers is not the skills they take from the academy to the precinct. It is what they bring to the academy: their character.

Many of the most egregious acts of police violence are committed by veteran officers who have had all the tactical training they need to perform the technical “operations” of law enforcement, including the use of guns and Tasers. What they lack is judgement grounded in human compassion and reason. However, for authoritarians, reason is embedded only in the ‘orders’ they can impose on others. Their judgement emanates only from evaluating how subservient are responses to their expressed authority.

Warrior versus Guardian

I have it on good authority that some of the finest police officers in the nation were shocked and angered when they saw the video recordings of Erik Chauvin killing George Floyd. Slowly over nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, Chauvin held George Floyd down, effectively choking the life out of him with a smirk and complete brutal indifference.

Mr. Floyd became a trophy attesting to Chauvin’s power “under color of authority.” It was not the first time he had applied unreasonable force in dealing with Black and poor citizens. Too many will write off Chauvin as a bad cop, a “bad apple” in a barrel of good fruit of the law.

However, a culture of violence as a primary value has penetrated law enforcement all across the nation, in part by the militarization of the police. It is the culture of the ultimate hi-tech warrior bred into many soldiers who have fought America’s “wars of choice” across the world, rationalized by the “war on terror” that has created an us-versus-them vision of America in the world—epitomized by the crass slogan, “America First!” as if those ‘others’ don’t really matter. The primary impulse of that culture is to kill, period. Hence, the rise of the “Oathkeepers” encouraged by a white racist authoritarian president.

Unfortunately, the culture of violence pervades our entire society, which makes the good cop’s job all the more difficult. “To Protect and to Serve,” first used by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1963, is emblazoned on the sides of police cars across the nation. That should signify the pledge of a Guardian culture, but too often, it is a sad irony. For too many cops the primary goal is to aggressively establish his/her absolute authority over the civilians he/she encounters.

Authoritarians Have Little or No Compassion

This morning, Ben Jealous was talking with Thom Hartmann on the radio about all this. Ben, former head of the NAACP, told Thom about a study years ago at UCLA. It was a simulation of a police encounter with an erratic seemingly threatening person. Subjects were selected on the basis of tests measuring how racist and how authoritarian they were. The racist (but not authoritarian) subjects talked down the ‘crazy person’ in two or three minutes. The authoritarian shot the ‘crazy’ within a minute.

As Ben Jealous pointed out, authoritarian cops typically abuse the poor, whether they are black, white, or whomever. Blacks are disproportionately poor. And, of course, too often the authoritarian cop is also a racist. Bottom line: authoritarians have little if any compassion and Black folks bear a disproportionate burden of their violence.

Unfortunately, many police departments institutionalize an authoritarian culture of violence. Recruitment and training reflect that bias, further enabling the widespread excessive use of force, even in situations where the issue at hand would only be a trivial misdemeanor such as a defective brake light or an expired license tag. However, the issue is not the citizen’s infraction, but how readily and completely s/he submits to the officer’s expression of authority. An overbearing assertion of authoritarianism on the part of an officer escalates tension, immediately resulting in brutality against a citizen.

Training in Use-of-Force Rules Cannot Instill Empathy

We face a deep predicament in all this. We have thousands of police departments around the country, each with good empathetic guardians of public safety, along with the abusive authoritarians who commit gratuitous violence because most authoritarians have little if any empathy. And they enjoy inflicting pain. They feel a strong need to dominate others, and they express it in violence or the threat of violence, depending on the degree of subservience of their victims.

On top of that, the entire U.S. culture focuses heavily on domination and treats partnership as weak and inferior. The model of social organization is hierarchy, not equality. Within the dominator paradigm, those with the most power control the weapons and use or threaten to use them to enforce their authority. The subordination of everyone else is qualitatively opposite mutual aid and respect. In contrast, when police respect all citizens and citizens respect tather than fear the police, law and order come naturally.

The only way out of all this mess in law enforcement is to use the recruitment process to weed out the authoritarian applicants and seek out applicants who have guardian personalities. At the same time, each department must eliminate any tolerance for authoritarian violent cops, with strict rules for demotion or dismissal for any exhibit of excessive force, including the verbal violence of denigration.

You cannot train an authoritarian not to be authoritarian. But you can encourage and enrich the impulses of a guardian to protect and to serve in highly skilled and respectful ways.

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