Mythology and the Acceptance of Police Brutality

Police AbuseI’ve been thinking a lot about the mythology of American policing and how it allows our criminal justice system to stay so messed up. And over at Vox, Redditt Hudson wrote an article that touches on this issue, I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This Is the Real Truth About Race and Policing. He worked for five years for the St Louis Police Department, and since then, he seems to work in criminal justice reform. So he’s not exactly your typical police officer. But still, he’s been in the field. And I think he has a good take on American policing. In particular, he seems to be able to distinguish between the reality and the myth of the police. And that is refreshing indeed.

Fundamentally, I think it is the mythology of policing that is so dangerous. It is what allows police to think that they live in a world that is especially dangerous. And that leads to officers like Michael Brelo to jump up on the hood of a car and fire 15 more shots — past the 122 already fired — at an unarmed couple in their car. And it is what leads to judges thinking the whole thing was a-okay. Because, you know, Brelo was “fearing for his life.” This isn’t a story of the real world: a civil servant doing a (at worst) modestly dangerous job. This is a story of Odysseus struggling to make his way in a world of the Sirens and Cyclops.

The standard line whenever a police officer does something unconscionable is, “While the vast majority of police officers are dedicated professionals, this officer blah, blah, blah…” Every time we talk about misbehavior of an officer, we are expected to preface it with this disclaimer. But Hudson’s accounting sounds far more reasonable. No, it isn’t the “vast majority” of police officers. It is instead:

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

Clearly, this isn’t based upon a study. It is just Hudson’s impression. But regardless what the number are, this is the makeup. There are a relatively small number of “good” and “bad” officers and then there are a whole bunch in the middle that go with the flow. This is why certain departments become hotbeds of racism and why a strong administrative effort to clean up a department really can work. But if you asked me, I would say that it is more like 5% of the officers who will always do the right thing. Let’s call them the Eagle Scouts. Clearly, the probability distribution of police officers abusing their power will be heavily tilted away from the Eagle Scouts — that is, there are more “bad” than “good” officers.

Another thing that Hudson noted is that racism against African Americans is not just something that white officers do. He sees the problem as being fundamentally one of abuse of authority. So the racism is systemic: it is acceptable to abuse black and brown people. So officers, regardless of what race they identify with, will abuse black and brown people because they know they can get away with that. They know they can’t go out and abuse students at Stanford.

How the mythology plays into this is in how it allows the officers in that big middle group to justify abusing their power — although it is probably a potent justification for the people who were attracted to police work because of the power. I’m sure that the officers who killed Freddie Gray thought that somehow what they were doing was justified because they have such dangerous jobs and because all the world is evil and all that other garbage that we allow them to go on thinking.

I remember something that Jim Hogshire said in his excellent book, You Are Going to Prison. He was talking about prison rape and how it was accepted by the prison authorities — part of the mechanism of control. He noted that if a warden wanted prison rape stopped today it would stop today. Well, that’s what I think about police brutality. The reason it continues on is because of us. We don’t want to give up our mythology of policing. Maybe it would help if we just got explicit about it, “While most police officers are demigods who exist in a dangerous but magical world…”


See also: Most Dangerous Jobs.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Mythology and the Acceptance of Police Brutality

  1. I was reading a book by Anthony Bouza, who was a ’90s police chief in Minneapolis and a staunch advocate of reforming cops. He said there was actually a term when he was a cop in the Bronx — “meat eaters” and “grass eaters,” with meat eaters being the tough (horrible) guys and grass eaters being the wimpy (good) guys.

    Bouza, a semi-politician, was kinder than Hudson — he put the psycho percentage at 5%. But he shared the same estimation of the rest, that they go along. And that’s the real problem, not the psychos, but the ones who look the other way.

    Yet what are you gonna do? I know I’m no good at standing up for anything. So I can’t exactly point fingers at cops who won’t stand up to psychos and suffer the enormous punishments a Serpico had to tolerate.

    The world needs gutsier people . . .

    • An important addition to this is that the “wimpy” or “good” officers are the bravest because they are the ones who have to stand up to power (other officers). The “bad” officers just have to abuse the weak. If they are countered on it by other officers, then they can back down and almost certainly won’t face any consequences. I think of myself as a coward, but I’ve been outspoken against injustices and even thrown myself physically into conflicts. This has only ever made my life harder. America does not reward those who stand up for the weak. That is probably a bigger problem than the fact that we don’t stop those who abuse the weak.

      • It is a big problem, although I’m not sure it’s bigger here than most other places. (Other places that are better seem to have laws and safety nets which make standing up for the weak less necessary, rather than cultures applauding those who defend others.)

        It is a huge and terrible thing. I know for myself, I’m an utter coward (I’ve been called a coward for not making enough money, and that’s pure dipshittery — making money takes no courage) and if our society valued people who stepped in front of injustice to stop it I’d be more of a help. I wouldn’t help a lot (cowardice) but I’d help more than I do now.

        Maybe your badass-sounding efforts against cruelty caused you grief, but made some difference in a good way to others. Never discount the effects you had without knowing you had them.

        • Probably the reason that my attempts at heroism are so ill conceived is because I am only likely to jump in if no one else will. Angels fear to tread where Frank jumps in! I greatly admire group efforts, but I am unlikely to join in. If I had any charisma at all, it might be that others would follow me. I’ve seen much the same thing in women. I think that women generally have a finer sense of right and wrong then men do. When they jump into the fray, no one tends to follow them either. (Although I will, because I am always keen on lost causes!) Could it be simply that people in general will only follow tall people? I’ve read that the real William Wallace was, in fact, really tall: 6’5″. Regardless, I think heroism is mostly a state of insanity. Being a coward is smart. But I’m talking of physical heroism here. Intellectual bravery is essential for a free society. That’s why ours is dying.

  2. I think one reason police get out of hand, at least one that enables and exacerbates the bad cops behavior, is their command structure in the field. Unlike the army, a group of police does not have well defined rules of engagement, and they do not have a person, like a squad leader, that can issue a cease fire order. That is how you get ten cops emptying their guns into a car with a couple of unarmed people in it. That’s also where a lot of the ‘going along’ behavior gets enabled. No one is really in charge and no one wants to argue about proper procedure in front of the suspects. Remember, for authoritarians, maintaining an unquestioned unified front to the suspects/kids/workers is far more important than doing the right thing.

    • That’s an excellent point. The police always seem like the army without nearly as much discipline. There are other problems too. One of which is that we expect the police to work as too many things. Most of the people they deal with so badly they shouldn’t be dealing with at all. These include low income people who should just be left alone and crazy people who should have case workers, but often don’t because we don’t fund mental healthcare enough.

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