Police Culture and Excessive Fear

On the Sunday talking heads programs I’m hearing many, many opinions being expressed about the killing of Tyre Nichols. Some are true, some partly true, and some clearly false.

On ABC’s This Week attorney Ben Crump said something that was true: police culture was a contributing factor in the killing of Tyre Nichols. Then he said something partly true: that the race of the victim was a determining factor. I think that any individual who resists arrest is risking an extreme response by arresting officers. IMO that is particularly true in the case of black perpetrators but isn’t limit to them. Note that I’m not “blaming the victim”. I’m saying that certain actions foster certain responses.

My explanation for the reactions of the police and that of those arrested by the police is excessive fear. The police have excessive fear of black people who are resisting arrest and black people have excessive fear when apprehended by the police. The fear is not irrational but IMO any fear that leads to death is irrational. It’s at least counter-productive.

Then an individual whose name I didn’t catch came on touting federal-level police reform. I’m not sure that federal-level police reform will contribute materially to eliminating these situations because I don’t see it addressing either the police culture or excessive fear that were factors in their happening.

I do think that “qualified immunity” should be ended not just for police but for all government officials when what they are accused of doing is a violation of the law or policy.

The senior senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, then made a point that I think is nearly completely false and which I would characterize as the “bad apples” theory. If you just eliminate a few bad apples, it will solve the problem. I think the problem is much more inherent than that. You’ve got to look at the people who become law enforcement officers, their attitudes, why they become law enforcement officers in the first place, and what happens to them including but not limited to police training that impels them to act as they do. The sad fact is that any pullback in police activity hurts black people the most. While it may be possible to mitigate the risks I don’t believe they can be eliminated, especially by getting rid of a few “bad apples”. Or enacting federal laws.

During the round table discussion several points were made that I thought were good. The first is that “elite units” seem to be especially problematic in cultivating the notion that the police are entitled to do pretty much anything in pursuing their missions. John Kasich then made the valuable point that ongoing monitoring is a necessity. It’s not just “one and done”.

6 comments… add one
  • Grey Shambler Link

    I’ve never been able to reconcile the idea that the police are professionally trained with the audio from these encounters.
    Each officer screaming unintelligible commands that frequently contradict, laced with profanity which indicates uncontrolled emotion.
    He had every reason to believe flight was his only hope of survival.
    No training in evidence, pack behavior and clearly just another gang after dark.

  • steve Link

    US police have highly variable amounts of training and it tends to be quite a bit shorter than European training. You end up being a lot more dependent upon your seniors to figure out how to behave and handle a crisis. With good training and mentoring I think most people can learn how to behave in a crisis. However, no one really knows how they will behave in the first crisis they face and some people are unable to function well in a crisis even with help. So when police misbehave we dont know if they were people who never received the guidance they needed or if they were people who should have never been police to begin with.

    I agree that often the police are afraid of black people and black people are sometimes afraid of the police. Many black people also dont trust the police. You also cant ignore the presence of guns. An armed society is not a polite society. Its one where we shoot each other.

    I would disagree just a bit about the bad apples thing. First, the unions really do protect the bad apples. Its not unusual to read in the cases about excessive force that the officer accused has had many other problems. The unions protect them. On top of that some areas have laws that prohibit releasing details about an officer’s work history when they leave to go work somewhere else, so a problem officer can just go work somewhere else. The very large majority of police are good people trying to do a hard job but that minority makes it hard for the public and other police.

    The issue is more, I think, that in any organization that is a 24/7, high stress culture people tend to bond and form an esprit de corps of sorts. That means when things go wrong you protect each other and you dont talk. I saw some of the tin the military and it was a big problem in medicine in the past and still occasionally pops up. If that bad culture is too strong then no one will step up and stop someone when they are doing or about to do something wrong. No one reinforces the values about serving and protecting the public.

    It will be hard to fix. It takes years to build trust and moments to lose it. As usual, I think it will take a strong and prolonged leadership effort.


  • It will be hard to fix.

    On that we are in agreement.

    As usual, I think it will take a strong and prolonged leadership effort.

    So, beyond the ability of the present bunch of yahoos. And by “present” I mean elected officials whether Democrats or Republicans.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    Reports now are of an audio in which a (White sounding) officer says:
    “I hope they stomp his ass.” Black officers thereby given the “go head” by White officer. Like unleashing a pack of dogs. Ergo: Racism in play.

  • steve Link

    Nice piece that goes through with the orders police were giving to the guy and what was actually going on at the time. The orders were often contradictory sometimes impossible to comply with, like when the police were holding both of his hands behind his back, one in cuffs and another officer demanded the guy give him his hands.



  • Grey Shambler Link

    It would improve things if one officer gave commands and the others would just shut up.

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