A take on Police Brutality; it's not as simple as it seems

A few years ago, my wife dropped me off at a bar, so I wouldn't have to drive. Half hour later, she called me crying. She made a U-turn and didn’t notice it was a one-way street. A cop stopped her and berated her. He was extremely condescending and yelled, pretty much at the top of his lungs. He stopped when my son asked “mommy what’s going on?” from the back. My wife said it seemed like he realized the person he was speaking to wasn’t a drunk driver – she was a local mom. He told her not to do it again, got in his car and sped away; driving aggressively. My wife consulted a local online group she’s a part of and was told everyone knew this police officer. He was mean, but no one complained yet to the department. Neither did my wife, we had other things to do and just wanted to put the incident out of our minds – we didn’t want to deal with it.

I think about that incident whenever I read about police brutality. I wouldn’t call my wife’s experience brutal, since it didn’t involve physical harm. However, there are parallels that are worth exploring. What makes some police officers behave this way? Popular answers seem to be “they’re all racist assholes”…”disarm the police”…“Fuck the police”.  Such answers are too simple for the monumental challenges at hand, both within the police forces and the communities they serve. 

Now, I want to make it clear that, in trying to explain behaviors, I am not attempting to make excuses.  Neither do I want to disparage the police, as a whole. These are the men and women who keep our society together, whether you want to admit it or not. Human behavior rarely boils down to something simple. It has many different causes and arises from many different situations. In order to fully understand how to address a problem, or a set of problems, we first have to understand the dynamics that go into it’s causes and evaluate them from all angles. This is my first attempt - I am starting with police brutality. It is only one side of the equation, but an important one. Because young recruits don’t join the force to subjugate the communities they serve.

In a survey conducted on why people want to become police officers, the most common answer was:

the opportunity to help others
— https://www.thebalance.com/why-would-anyone-want-to-be-a-police-officer-974893

That’s powerful. It’s an answer that can only be found in a few professions – EMTs, Firefighters, healthcare professionals among others. This tells us that recruits see themselves as part of the force for good. The quintessential “kid who wants to make a difference”.

In fact, a vast majority of police do their job well. Even after years on the force they see themselves as protectors of the community. Communities tend to feel the same:

About eight-in-ten (79%) say they have been thanked by someone for their service in the month prior to the survey while on duty. A majority of officers (58%) say their work nearly always or often makes them feel proud. A solid majority of officers are either very satisfied (16%) or satisfied (58%) with their agency as a place to work. And an overwhelming share of officers (96%) agree that they are strongly committed to making their agency successful.
— http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/01/11/behind-the-badge/

So most officers are recognized by their communities, proud of their work and dedicated to their organizations. That’s not something that should be taken for granted. It tells us something very important about the mentality of the individuals patrolling our neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, much like in other professions, there's a dark side…except with a horrifying twist:

family violence is two to four times higher in the law-enforcement community than in the general population
— https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/09/police-officers-who-hit-their-wives-or-girlfriends/380329/

So how do we connect A to B?

Let’s start with this article. It summarizes research conducted by the National Institute of Justice. It cites the following factors as contributing heavily to police burnout:

  • Frequent rotating shifts (read why ships collide on my thoughts about how much this sucks)
  • Constant exposure to people suffering distress and pain
  • Threats to an officer’s safety (almost 2/3 of police officers get threats to their life regularly)
  • Having to be in control of emotions even when provoked
  • The responsibility of owning a firearm (yes, this in of itself is stressful)

All of these stressers wreak havoc on your mind and body. After a while of dealing with people’s bullshit you begin to turn into a curmudgeon with a gun. You develop signs of:

  • Cynicism and suspiciousness
  • Emotional detachment from various aspects of daily life
  • Increased aggressiveness
  • Marital or other family problems (for example, extramarital affairs, divorce, or domestic violence)

In other research:

56% majority of officers say they have become more callous toward people since taking their job.... Officers who report they have grown more callous are also more likely than their colleagues to endorse aggressive or physically harsh tactics with some people or in some parts of the community.
— http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/01/11/behind-the-badge/

So sustained, prolonged levels of high stress lead to callousness. Callousness leads to confrontation. It isn't normal wear and tear on your mind. It's consistent subjection to a range of negative emotions that lead to a permanent state of numbed emotions. In other words, there’s a serious issue with mental health in the police community. But many police officers are reluctant to get help, for fear of their careers, or of embarrassment or both. There's a heavy stigma associated with mental illness:

Some agencies require officers seeking or receiving mental health treatment, or who take psychotropic drugs, to inform the department and even face duty restrictions while under such care. It is this type of stigma or misunderstanding that perpetuates false information and traps cops in a prison of depression or anxiety
— https://www.policeone.com/police-products/human-resources/articles/218917006-Suffering-in-silence-Mental-health-and-stigma-in-policing/

If you think that duty restriction is appropriate for people getting treatment consider this:

After leaving the military, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder.  I didn't develop these over night, I've lived with these conditions for years - definitely during my time in the service. There, I carried weapons on duty and trained in the escalation of force; all while secretly suffering mental illness. The thing is, I feel infinitely more qualified to carry a weapon now that I got help and am taking meds, than I ever did. I'm more calm, stable, able to make good decisions and, this is key, I don't have suicidal thoughts. But people think it's the other way around. If I said something, I'd be blacklisted. If you seek help, you risk your career.

The very people we need most to be emotionally stable and mentally healthy are routinely subjected to factors which increase the risk of mental illness. They are also least incentivized (and in fact de-incentivized) to seek mental health care when they need it. It's the most backward thinking logic.

So de-stigmatizing mental health is invaluable and a must when it comes to addressing issues within the police forces (also the military, but that's for another article). The onus can’t all be on the officer to “suck it up and deal with it”. It will take an organizational effort to combat this stress and anti-psychotherapy epidemic among the police community. There’s just one problem. The “police community” isn’t one organization. It’s thousands of police departments; 17,985 to be precise. So standards aren’t standardized.

Each police department has it's own operating budget, guidelines and training processes. Sure, some may send officers to the same academy, but the leadership, culture, and rules and regulations are different for each. This is why the only action the federal government could take to help curb what they saw as an police shooting epidemic was commission the NIJ survey. They have no control over state and local police units. One department may take it seriously - recognizing the importance of officer well-being. Others may ignore it and cover themselves by doing half-ass training. Still others may not do anything at all. There’s no way to track that on a national scale. Here’s an article that explains this issue in more detail.

It’s difficult, if not impossible to talk about this without discussing the dynamics surrounding crime, racism and policing practices. This is a fairly broad topic with many aspects that need to be discussed in detail. It requires and deserves its' own separate conversation; one that I’d like to take on in a separate article to dedicate it the right amount of attention. For now, I will say this:

(72%) say that poorly performing officers are not held accountable (by their departments)
— http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/01/11/behind-the-badge/

So the average police officer regularly sees below average police officers getting away with behaviors that they shouldn’t get away with. At best, it results in someone skating by for a few decades and collecting a pension on the city's dime till they die. Or it can result in something worse, like former Suffolk County Police Commissioner James Burke, who was arrested for beating up a suspect and covering it up. People knew long before he was commissioner that something was off:

His career was almost derailed early on by a relationship with a prostitute, and his habit of losing his service weapon. But he kept rising through the ranks, ultimately becoming the top uniformed chief of the county police force
— https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/03/nyregion/james-burke-ex-suffolk-county-police-chief-is-sentenced.html

Or the incident with Sandra Bland, who was stopped for not using a turn signal (ok) and then violently arrested for not putting out her cigarette (not ok), and subsequently hung herself in jail (traggic).

Or still worse, this one, where the officer was actually found guilty of murder.

Certainly, and unfortunately, there are many others such incidents, the causes of which must be addressed. However,  it's only part of the story.

Addressing internal challenges of police forces without a focus on issues within the communities they serve will not be productive. Poverty, gang violence, high school dropout rates, human and drug trafficking as well as the increasing number of laws on the books that police are required to enforce all lead to violent encounters with law enforcement. We risk dis-empowering police organizations if we only focus on police. Doing so will result in precisely the opposite of the intended effect; leaving communities who are already the most vulnerable to crime, even more vulnerable to crime. It's a balance for sure, and it's easier said then done.