Police Brutality Might Have Psychological Roots

After the police incident in Tuscaloosa, Ala., it’s clear that being in law enforcement can be a challenging job. As an officer, you’re afforded freedoms most people aren’t. These include application of deadly force, stop and search powers, and seizure of personal property. Occasionally, these powers can lead to corruption and abuse.

Here are 5 psychological reasons why the police sometimes behave in the abusive ways they do.

1. Psychological Impact Of Constant Negativity

As a law enforcement officer, you have a lot of power. At the same time, you’re constantly having to deal with the worst parts of our society. Drug-dealers, rapists, murderers, you name it.

When you’re constantly having to deal with this sort of thing on a day-to-day basis, eventually it can be expected that it could have a psychological influence on you. Some officers have the character to stand up and say no; others don’t.

2. The Uniform And The Badge

There are several reasons for police uniform and badges. The most obvious one is that it makes them instantly recognizable to all. For the officers, they’re worn to promote a sense of togetherness. This in turn removes some individuality from wearers of the uniform.

This creates a sense of conformity. If you see one officer behaving in a certain way, you may be influenced to behave similarly.

3. Prejudices

Prejudices aren’t exclusive to law enforcement, but their elevated level of power means that it can manifest itself in potentially life-threatening ways. Prejudice can be a difficult problem to challenge. It’s almost impossible to detect at the application process. Equally, sometimes prejudice can be unconscious and can lead to bias.

A recent study showed that police officers generally view black and latino kids as older than white kids. As a consequence, police use more force on black and latino kids than white ones.

According to Dr. Phillip Goff, the study’s co-author,

“In our minds, we represent particularly those young men that we imagine are possibly dangerous to be older than they are, so that we’re essentially justifying the threat that we feel.”

With these subconscious prejudices in mind, it then makes sense to the officer to behave in a particular way towards certain individuals.

4. Genuine Fear

At times, police officers behave in potentially harmful ways due to genuine fear for their lives. Officers are human beings too. They have husbands, wives, and children back home too. The majority of officers — we’d like to think — go to work every day for the sole purpose of making the streets safer for the general public.

It’s understandable that they’d be vigilant and apprehensive on the job. They have families back home and if something were to happen to them on the job, what would become of their families? In 2014, 126 officers were killed in the line of duty. Officers can be forgiven for not wanting to be part of these alarming numbers, if you ask me.

5. Cognitive Dissonance

This involves justifying an action to yourself to make it more morally acceptable. Put simply, officers modify their beliefs to line up with unethical behavior. This can be done in multiple ways including psychological denial of there even being a victim, dehumanization, refusal to accept responsibility in a group, victim-blaming, and comparing it to other scenarios that may or may not have come about. You can read more about it here.

These psychological reasons for police abuse of power are by no means a justification. They are more a set of mitigating factors which go towards explaining behavior exhibited by some cops. When seeing these points, it’s easy to see how some officers can stray from their line of duty.

Featured image via Pixabay, available under a Creative Commons license.

After graduating from City University London with a degree in law, Craig is now a freelance blogger and writer. He works on his own blog that speaks on social and cultural millennial issues.