Have you ever wondered about the psychology behind police brutality? Why is it that some police officers can go their whole careers without ever using excessive force, while others seem to be caught in a cycle of using more force than is required sometimes leading to death? Furthermore, what are the factors that influence a police officer to use excessive force?
These questions and more have been on the minds of many, as acts of police brutality seem to be occurring more regularly, and racial tensions over the inequality regarding the victims of police brutality have intensified.
What Is Police Brutality?
Police brutality refers to the excessive use of force by a police officer against a victim or victims that is deemed to go beyond the level required to sustain life, avoid injury, or control a situation.
Most encounters with the police do not involve violence. A U.S. Department of Justice Report measured contact between police and the public in 2018. Around 61.5 million people had an encounter with the police during the year prior to the survey, but only 2% of people experienced threats or use of force. However, it's worth remembering that roughly half of the encounters in this survey were traffic-related incidents, and the report did not include police behavior during protests as a category.
Why Police Brutality Occurs
In order to solve the problem of police brutality, it is necessary to understand the underlying factors that lead to it happening in the first place. In fact, there are a number of different factors that may play a role, not all of which have to do with the underlying personality of the officer who engages in the act.
However, each of them can be considered from a psychological standpoint or psychological lens. This helps us to understand how to fix the problem from a psychological view.
What are the individual-level factors that contribute to police brutality? These can be understood as those that originate from the offending officer. Some examples of individual-level factors are given below.
Mental Health Issues
The mental health of the offending officer may play a role. A 2019 study found that officers who self-reported engaging in abusive police practices tended to have higher levels of PTSD symptoms.
It is possible that officers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from job-related stressors and trauma may have an increased startle response, a tendency toward suspicion, and problems with aggression. These traits can make it more likely that they will overreact and use deadly force when not necessary. However, it is also possible that engaging in excessive force results in a sense of profound guilt and moral injury that in turn lead to PTSD symptoms.
Some researchers theorize that traits of "psychopathy", also called antisocial personality disorder (APD), may be more prevalent in police officers than the general population. Traits such as "fearless dominance" or "cold-heartedness" can be adaptive in dangerous or emotionally charged situations, but they can also make an individual more likely to engage in excessive use of force or to feel that they do not need to follow the rules.
That said, research on this theory is limited. It is unlikely that APD, which is very rare, could explain most police brutality cases.
Personal problems experienced by police officers may increase the likelihood of them engaging in excessive force, such as relationship problems or other stressful life events.
What are the organizational-level factors that contribute to police brutality? These can include policies of the police department or the general working environment.
If the police department sets limits for the use of force that allows police officers to use their own discretion (in other words, limits that are too vague or lenient), then the likelihood that officers will use excessive force is going to increase.
In addition, if the general working environment of the police department is such that excessive use of force is not punished or reprimanded, then that sends the message to the police force that it's an acceptable part of their job description.
The Washington Post's police shootings database shows that police shoot and kill roughly 1,000 people a year in the United States. However, only 110 officers since 2005 have been charged with murder or manslaughter, and only 42 officers have been convicted.
In other words, the use of force becomes legitimized because everyone does it and nobody says anything about it.
This, despite the fact that if a civilian were to inflict the same level of force on another individual in the same situation, it would be considered to be a violation of the law. Due to qualified immunity, it can be difficult to prosecute officers for misconduct.
Examples of Police Brutality
In order to understand the problem of police brutality, it is helpful to consider some of the more prominent examples in recent times. Below are some of the more well-known cases and issues surrounding them.
Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old Black woman who died after being shot in her apartment on March 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her death was the result of a search warrant that was being executed by white police officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department.
The raid began shortly after midnight. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, thought the officers entering the apartment were intruders and fired a warning shot at them, which hit one officer in the leg. In return, the officers fired 32 shots, leaving Breonna Taylor dead and Walker physically unharmed.
While the City of Louisville agreed to pay $12 million to Taylor's family, the three police officers involved were not indicted on charges related to Taylor's death. The incident led to subsequent protests throughout the United States.
George Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man who died on May 25th, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after being arrested for using a counterfeit $20 bill. During the arrest, former police officer, now convicted murderer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck while Floyd was handcuffed and lying on his face.
Bystanders who tried to intervene were prevented from doing so by other officers. Prior to his death, George Floyd pleaded for relief, saying that he could not breathe and that he was going to die. The entire incident became public when video footage shot by onlookers was released to the public. Autopsies revealed Floyd died as a result of the actions of the officers, and worldwide protests were sparked by the incident.
While these incidents occurred in 2020, police brutality has been a problem for decades. Below is a list of incidents from 2014, at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement that brought police brutality to the forefront of public discourse.
On April 30, 2014 Dontre Hamilton was killed after being shot 14 times by a police officer in a Milwaukee park. Local Starbucks employees had called the police for a wellness check after seeing Hamilton sleeping on a park bench. The officer who responded to the call, Christopher Manney, began what would later be described by the Police Chief Edward Flynn as an "inappropriate pat-down."
Hamilton woke up and began to struggle. Manney's defense team would later use Hamilton's prior diagnosis of schizophrenia to suggest that he was dangerous, but Flynn would later justify his firing of Manney by saying the officer ignored departmental policy and instigated the fight.
Eric Garner was killed on July 17, 2014 in New York after he was put in an illegal chokehold by a white police officer. Garner said "I can't breathe" 11 times while he was held down. The officer involved, Daniel Pantaleo, was not charged with a crime. His death sparked protests and "I can't breathe" as a slogan for protest.
John Crawford III
John Crawford III was killed on August 5, 2014 after being shot by a police officer at a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. He had been holding a pellet gun, which the store had advertised as being on sale, and there was no confrontation. The officers involved were not charged.
These are only some examples of how excessive use of force can lead to death.
Why Racism Turns to Violence
Racism refers to bias held against a person or group of people because of their race or ethnicity. Why does racism turn into excessive use of force or violence among police officers? There are several factors to consider.
Prevalence of Deaths Due to Police Brutality
Research has demonstrated that the risk of being killed as a result of the use of excessive force by police in the United States varies by racial and ethnic group membership.
Specifically, Black men and women, American Indian/Alaska Native men and women, and Latin American men were shown to have a higher lifetime risk of dying due to police violence compared to their White counterparts.
In contrast, Latin American women and Asian/Pacific Islander men and women had a lower lifetime risk of dying due to police violence than White counterparts.
The overall lifetime odds were shown to be 1 in 2,000 for men and 1 in 33,000 for women. Overall, the highest risk was shown for Black men, who faced a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by a police officer over the course of their lifetime.
Why are Black men and other minorities at a higher risk for dying due to an excessive use of force by police than their White counterparts? Racial profiling may help to explain this phenomenon.
Racial profiling refers to assuming guilt based on race or ethnicity, a problem that mostly affects those individuals who have a higher lifetime risk of dying as a result of police brutality.
For example, police officers may use stereotypes when trying to determine the suspects in a crime, or they may perceive persons of certain races (such as Black men) as more aggressive or threatening when faced with a confrontation.
The Psychology of Racism
How to Reduce Police Brutality
How can we work to reduce police brutality? There are a number of different steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of this phenomenon from an organizational and psychological standpoint.
In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an order to appoint a task force on 21st century policing. The task force developed a list of recommendations such as improving training and education, reducing bias among police officers and departments, introducing and improving crisis intervention training, and promoting cultural sensitivity as well as compassion.
Implicit Bias Training
Implicit bias training takes the approach that police officers operate with subconscious biases that they may not even be aware of. When these biases are activated, they may handle a situation differently than they would if, for example, a person was White instead of Black or driving a BMW instead of a old beat-up pickup truck.
The premise of this training is to help police officers understand that everyone grows up with subconscious biases, even if someone doesn't feel like they have any prejudice. The goal is to make police officers aware of their biases so that they can manage them in the moment. This is more effective than calling out police officers as racist, as most officers would not consider themselves to fall into that category. Rather, this approach takes the stance that all officers need training.
The idea behind implicit bias training is that those who are better able to manage their biases will be safer, more effective, and fairer in their role as police officers. However, there have been very few studies on the effectiveness of implicit bias training for police.
Only one 2020 study has looked at impacts on real-world behavior. While implicit bias training seemed to improve officer knowledge of implicit bias concepts and motivation to act without prejudice, the study found that training had little to no effect on racial and ethnic disparities in police enforcement. In other words, implicit bias training alone was not enough to change behavior.
Improved Hiring Practices
One way to reduce the risk of police brutality is to hire individuals who have a lower risk of becoming violent on the job.
Personality psychology can be helpful in making these decisions, as there are assessments that can be used to predict how individuals will respond to stressful situations as well as predict their behavior when on the job.
The use of personality assessments can also be a way to level the playing field for minorities, as it can be an unbiased way to determine who is the best fit for the job.
Improved Disciplinary & Supervision Measures
If a police officer engages in the use of excessive force, or even deadly force, and there is no punishment, this sends the message to the rest of the department that the behavior is tolerated or even acceptable.
Instead, adequate supervision to identify police officers acting in inappropriate ways before that behavior gets out of control, as well as disciplinary measures to send the message that the behavior is unacceptable, are necessary to identify and reprimand police officers who are the most likely to use excessive or deadly force.
The use of such measures will also deter other officers from acting in the same manner, and it can also set the tone for the overall behavioral expectations of police officers in a department.
In other words, police departments should begin to lead by example, and that starts with enforcing the law for police officers in the same way that it would be for civilians.
Provide Mental Health Support for Police Officers
When police officers are better able to manage their emotions under stress, understand which emotions they are experiencing, and communicate well despite being in high-stress situations, they will be better able to de-escalate complex scenarios rather than to react by using excessive force.
In other words, there is a tipping point at which excessive force begins to be used, and this tipping point can be dialed backward when police officers receive adequate support for their mental health needs.
Additionally, given the fact that PTSD can be a risk factor for the use of excessive or deadly force, providing swift and adequate support to officers who have experienced trauma on the job seems to be a necessary prerequisite to preventing the use of excessive force.
This begins by providing adequate funding to support the mental health of police officers, and it also means reducing stigma and encouraging police officers to come forward when they are struggling with their mental health.
As a society in general, mental health is still surrounded by stigma, so it is doubly important that police officers are made to feel that it is acceptable for them to talk about their mental health struggles. Rather than feeling isolated with their trauma, stress, or unmanageable emotions, police officers should be made to feel that they know exactly who to speak to for support and that those supports will be in place and easily accessible when they are most needed.
This also means the police departments should be trained to recognize the symptoms of PTSD so that they can intervene and offer support when an officer may not recognize their own symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Improve Relationships Between Police & Community
In order to reduce the use of excessive and deadly force, it is important to improve the relationships between the police department and the community, particularly the Black community, as this sector is generally the one most affected by police brutality (and subsequent anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress).
This could take the form of programs and initiatives that place police officers out in the community in a helping or educational role instead of a policing role. It could also mean having the police department work with the community or participate in marches and rallies to show their support and understanding. This was seen taking place when some police departments chose to attend Black Lives Matter protests and marches and kneel in support instead of taking a combative stance.
When both the police officers and the racial minorities can begin to see each other as individuals rather than as groups to fear or cast stereotypes upon, then real change will begin to occur in those implicit biases that fuel racial tension among police officers and also a general distrust of the police force among racial minorities.
In addition to the above measures, it is also necessary to continue to conduct research to understand the psychology behind police brutality. Which personality factors are most likely to correlate with excessive use of force? Which mental disorders show the highest correlation with deadly use of force? What forms of training help most to reduce implicit bias and improve the situation?
Ongoing research on these and other topics is the cornerstone of moving forward and improving the situation when it comes to the excessive use of force by police officers and the disproportionate impact that it has on racial minorities.
Defunding Police Departments
What about defunding police departments? This is a tactic that has been brought up as a solution to police brutality.
Defunding the police means taking money away from funding the police department and instead sending those funds to invest in the communities that are struggling the most and where most of the policing occurs.
It's very much similar to the concept of directing money toward prevention instead of dealing with problems after the fact. While not a simple solution, there is merit in funding programs and communities that are struggling instead of putting more people behind bars.
A Word From Verywell
Understanding the psychology behind police brutality is the first step toward fixing the problem. Unfortunately, the situation is inherently one that needs to be fixed from the top down, beginning with the systems of government and how they allocate their funding. When better training and education is in place for police officers, as well as better mental health supports, then better outcomes may result.
It's also worth noting that while this problem seems to be most prominent in the United States, other countries may have their own racial tensions (for example, in Canada and Australia there is tension between government and Indigenous people). The United States, however, struggles more than most with the use of deadly force in the form of gun violence.
For this reason, the psychology of police brutality is only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece will be understanding the problem of gun violence in the United States, and how it compares to rates of gun violence in other countries.
The Psychology Behind Rioting
- How has the Black Lives Matter movement brought attention to police brutality?
- Is police brutality against minorities, juveniles or the poor a serious problem?
- How can the extent of police brutality be measured?
- What are the causes of police brutality?
- Is racism a factor in police brutality?
Will thou then not be afraid of the police officer? Do that which is good, and you shall praise of the same. In other words, if you're doing good, you don't have anything to be afraid of. For he — the police officer — is the minister of God to thee for good.What is a quote about police brutality? ›
“If someone puts their hands on you make sure they never put their hands on anybody else again.” “I've seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose.How is psychology used by the police? ›
They apply psychological principles when working with people inside and outside police departments, gather evidence and data to inform recommendations, clarify witness testimonies, advise officers during interrogations, and, in general, offer insight into the hidden compartments of the human brain when called upon to ...How does police brutality affect human rights? ›
WHY IS POLICE BRUTALITY A HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE? At its worst, unlawful use of force by police can result in people being deprived of their right to life. If police force is unnecessary or excessive, it may also amount to torture or other ill-treatment.What does God say about criminal justice? ›
“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute,” (Psalm 82:3). “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow's cause,” (Isaiah 1:17).What is the Policeman's Prayer? ›
Oh Almighty God, Whose Great Power and Eternal Wisdom Embraces the Universe, Watch Over All Policemen and Law Enforcement Officers. Protect Them from Harm in the Performance of Their Duty to Stop Crime, Robberies, Riots, and Violence.How does police brutality affect society? ›
Studies show that negative experiences with law enforcement may decrease trust in other institutions as well. This mistrust in areas such as medical care could limit engagement with the healthcare system, affecting community members' willingness to seek mental health resources and other treatment.What are the concepts of police brutality? ›
Police brutality is the excessive and unwarranted use of force by law enforcement against an individual or a group. It is an extreme form of police misconduct and is a civil rights violation. Police brutality includes, but is not limited to, beatings, shootings, "improper takedowns, and unwarranted use of tasers."What is another word for police brutality? ›
|police violence||state terrorism|
|state violence||human rights abuses|
|human rights violations||police crackdown|
The psychodynamic theory centers on a person's early childhood experience and how it influences the likelihood for committing crime. Behavioral theory focuses on how perception of the world influences behavior. And cognitive theory focuses on how people manifest their perceptions can lead to a life of crime.How does psychology link to crime? ›
One of the disciplines that has made and continues to make contributions to criminology and criminal justice is psychology. Psychology focuses on the behavior of individual offenders and the forces that motivate individuals to engage in criminal or violent behavior.What is the psychological test for police? ›
The most common test is the Minnesota Multiphasic Psychological Inventory (MMPI). Updated versions of the test include the MMPI-2 and the MMPI-2RF. These tests are comprised of over 500 true-false statements, which you read and respond to.What are the types of police brutality? ›
- #1: False Imprisonment. False imprisonment occurs when an officer takes an individual into custody without having probable cause or obtaining an arrest warrant. ...
- #2: Excessive Force. ...
- #3: Malicious Prosecution. ...
- Our Police Brutality Lawyers Will Advocate for You.
- Stresses inherent in police work.
- Stresses arising internally from police department practices and policies.
- External stresses stemming from the criminal justice system and the society at large.
- Internal stresses confronting individual officers.
Unethical behaviour arises when officers' demands for compensation overrides their public duty. The compensation sought by police can take a variety of forms. At one end are the illegal material benefits an officer may extract from the public or organization. At the other are psychological rewards.How do you fight police brutality? ›
- Promote community policing.
- Ban chokeholds and strangleholds.
- Invest in crisis intervention teams.
- Increase the number of mental health professionals in law enforcement agencies.
- Involve psychologists in multidisciplinary teams to implement police reforms.
In addition to character, personality and ethnicity, police officers' gender, level of education and experience can influence their decisions to use legitimate violence.Is police brutality the same as excessive force? ›
Police brutality oftentimes falls under the category of excessive force or unreasonable force. Excessive force occurs in any situation where a government official who is allowed to use force against other people uses too much force.Why did God let me go to jail? ›
He loves us enough to allow us to be hurt in the short-term if it leads to our salvation in the long run. That's the number one reason why God allows some to go to prison: He loves them.
In the Bible, all violence is considered an offence against God and against humanity. Scripture is full of condemnations of violence – time and again violence is associated with wickedness and condemned as “detestable to the Lord” (Psalm 11, Proverbs 3 & 10). In particular, violence against women is condemned.Does God get angry and punish us? ›
God's punitive anger — that is, his punishing or condemning anger — is completely absorbed by Christ when he died. He became a curse for us. He bore our sin. But God may still be angry and displeased and grieved toward his beloved children in a disciplinary sense rather than a condemning sense.Who can stop us if God is with us? ›
Paul's question “Who can be against us?” answers itself: If God is for us, of course no one can be against us! And Paul goes on to say, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.Can praying protect you? ›
Never underestimate what the power of prayer can do in any situation. God knows exactly what we need, when we need it. So whether you're calling for protection on yourself, your home, your children, or simply the world, know that the Lord is listening, and he will answer when the time is right.How do you stop the police in 12 minutes? ›
To incapacitate and kill the cop when he comes into the apartment in search of the pocket watch, the player needs to electrocute him using the faulty switch in the bedroom.What do you do with the police in 12 minutes? ›
When you hear him hit the ground, head into the bedroom and click on his body. Take out everything that you find in his pockets and handcuff him quickly before he wakes up.What are grass eaters in policing? ›
As defined by the Knapp Report, those police officers who "aggressively misuse their police powers for personal gain" are meat-eaters, while "grass-eaters simply accept the payoffs that the happenstances of police work throw their way" (p. 4).What are the three 3 stages of police corruption? ›
THE POLICE CORRUPTION PROCESS IS SEEN AS BEING A MATURATIONAL, ON-GOING PROCESS OF CONTINUALLY DEEPER INVOLVEMENT. THE SIX STAGES IN THIS PROCESS, AS IDENTIFIED BY THE AUTHOR, ARE PRECORRUPTION, EXPERIMENTATION, ACCUSTOMATION, CONCEPTUALIZATION, IMPROVISATION, AND BENEDICTION.What are the 9 police Code of Ethics? ›
Code of Ethics launched.
|policing principles||standards of professional behaviour|
|accountability||honesty and integrity|
|fairness||authority, respect and courtesy|
|honesty||equality and diversity|
|integrity||use of force|
Police Officer Responsibilities:
Enforcing local, state, and federal laws. Patrolling assigned geographic zones and responding to calls. Apprehending and transporting suspects. Interviewing victims, witnesses, and suspects.
Police typically are responsible for maintaining public order and safety, enforcing the law, and preventing, detecting, and investigating criminal activities. These functions are known as policing. Police are often also entrusted with various licensing and regulatory activities.What is a word for brutally honest? ›
Someone who is veracious speaks the truth — like your brutally honest friend who always lets you know what she thinks about your outfits, your hairstyle, your lasagna recipe, and your taste in movies.What is police opposite word? ›
Opposite of a person granted the legal authority to enforce the law. criminal. lawbreaker. offender. crook.What are the 5 types of crime in psychology? ›
Criminologists commonly group crimes into several major categories: (1) violent crime; (2) property crime; (3) white-collar crime; (4) organized crime; and (5) consensual or victimless crime.Are criminals born or made? ›
Research data are increasingly supporting the view that the causes of crime lie in a combination of predisposing biological traits channeled by social circumstances into criminal behavior. These traits alone do not inevitably lead to crime, however. Similarly, the circumstances do not make criminals of everyone.What is crime psychology called? ›
Forensic psychology is a broad field that applies the principles of psychology to the criminal justice system and law. Forensic psychologists consult with law enforcement to integrate psychology into both criminal and civil legal matters.What theory best explains criminal behavior? ›
The theory of differential association, put forth by Edwin H. Sutherland (1), is a learning theory which formulates the process as one whereby criminal behavior is learned in association with those who have criminal attitudes and values, as compared to associations with those who have noncriminal attitudes and values.What is the IQ requirement for police? ›
According to Wonderlic, a score of 20 to 27 is the particular range that best fits with the successful performance of police work. The national median score for police officers is 21, the equivalent of a 104 IQ, or just slightly above average.What personality do police have? ›
Strong moral character. Sense of ethics. Compassion, empathy, and respect for others. Devotion to community.What is a good research questions for racial profiling? ›
- What is racial profiling?
- How prevalent is racial profiling?
- Are there laws to combat racial profiling?
- Is racial profiling simply a black and white issue?
- How has the "War on Terror" affected racial profiling?
- Is racial profiling a legitimate way to combat terrorism?
- Racial Profiling in Law Enforcement.
- Discrimination in Law Enforcement.
- Police Brutality.
- Police Misconduct.
- Race Discrimination.
Police brutality is the excessive and unwarranted use of force by law enforcement against an individual or a group. It is an extreme form of police misconduct and is a civil rights violation. Police brutality includes, but is not limited to, beatings, shootings, "improper takedowns, and unwarranted use of tasers."Is racial profiling a violation of human rights? ›
Racial profiling is patently illegal, violating the U.S. Constitution's core promises of equal protection under the law to all and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.How does racial profiling affect society? ›
These behaviors alienate communities from law enforcement, hinder community-policing effects, and cause communities to lose trust in law enforcement . This negative interaction undermines effective community policing for public safety.What is the relationship between conflict theory and racial profiling? ›
Conflict theory holds that law and the mechanisms of its enforcement are used by dominant groups in society to minimize threats to their interests posed by those whom they label as dangerous, especially minorities and the poor. Racial profiling has become an issue of significance in the past several years.What is the greatest factor in controlling the use of unwarranted police brutality? ›
The greatest factor in controlling the use of unwarranted police brutality is/are? threat of civil judgment against individual officers. In the landmark case Tennessee v. Garner, the US Supreme Court outlawed deadly use of force by police.What should you not say in a police interview? ›
You should not lie to the police, but you do not have to answer their questions. You can simply say “no comment” or walk away. If the police ask to interview you as a witness for a legal case, you don't have to say yes. If you do agree, you're allowed to talk to a solicitor before the interview.What is your weakness best answer? ›
Answer “what is your greatest weakness” by choosing a skill that is not essential to the job you're applying to and by stressing exactly how you're practically addressing your weakness. Some skills that you can use as weaknesses include impatience, multitasking, self-criticism, and procrastination.