The Culture of Policing Is Broken

Brutality and dehumanization are deeply embedded in many departments.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

It’s one of the most remarkable poll results of the current moment. From May 29 to June 2, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked voters whether they were more troubled by the actions of the police and the death of George Floyd, or by protests that had turned violent. By a more than two-to-one margin, they said they were more troubled by the actions of the police.

This is not how Americans reacted to the riots of 1968, when they swung to Richard Nixon’s law-and-order message. This is not how they reacted to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992. Something is different in America. In that WSJ/NBC News poll, 80 percent of respondents said they think the country is spiraling “out of control,” and people are more worried by police than by protesters.

This is not the only poll question that reveals a seismic shift in public opinion in recent years. After a grand jury didn’t indict the officer who killed Eric Garner in 2014, only 33 percent of Americans felt that police were more likely to use excessive force against black people than against white people. Now, after George Floyd was killed in 2020, 57 percent of Americans believe that. According to a June Monmouth University poll, 76 percent of Americans now think racism and discrimination are “a big problem,” up 25 points since 2015. In January 2018, more registered voters said they opposed Black Lives Matter than said they supported it. Now supporters outnumber opponents by a 26-point margin.

What has shifted?

The killings of the past few years and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has arisen in response to them, have given all Americans an education in the systematic mistreatment of black people by police forces across the country. Videos of police brutality are washing across everyone’s phones: videos of cops running over young women with police horses, pushing down old white men for no reason, rushing into crowds of peaceful demonstrators, and raining blows on young people and reporters. Videos that show the deadness in the eyes of an officer as he kicks a young woman in the face, a woman who is just sitting there peacefully on the street.

Where does this brutality come from? And what can we do about it?

Two theories are now dominating public debate. The first sees the problem on the individual level. There are a number of “bad apples” in every police force—authoritarian, racist bullies who take pleasure in pummeling defenseless black men. We need to take away union protections, increase sanctions,  remove them from the force, and prosecute them when appropriate.

The second theory sees the problem on the systemic level. There’s something inherently oppressive about neighborhoods being ruled by men and women with guns, batons, and mace. In a systemically racist society, the use of force in that way is bound to be unjust. We need to “defund the police” and try softer, more communal models.

Both theories contain some truth. Some cops, like George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, rack up a lot of complaints and infractions. It’s also true that over the course of American history, law enforcement has constantly been used to enforce racial hierarchy. Police brutality reflects the legacy of racial lynchings, and some of the habits of mind that are still embedded in American society and in its police departments.

But the evidence suggests that the bulk of the problem is on a different level, neither individual or systemic. The problem lies in the organizational cultures of some police forces. In the forces with an us-versus-the-world siege mentality. In the ones with the we-strap-on-the-armor-and-fight culture, the ones who depersonalize the human beings out on the street. All cruelty begins with dehumanization—not seeing the face of the other, not seeing the whole humanity of the other.  A cultural regime of dehumanization has been constructed in many police departments. In that fertile ground, racial biases can spread and become entrenched. But the regime can be deconstructed.

Many people go into policing because they are idealistic. A study of NYPD recruits found that one of their most common motivations was the “opportunity to help people in the community.” In 2015, a group of researchers led by the police psychologist Daniel M. Blumberg studied police recruits, using what they called the “integrity scale” to measure honesty, trustworthiness, and incorruptibility. The police recruits scored higher on average than the college students who had participated in earlier studies. As Blumberg wrote in a later paper, “Law enforcement agencies generally do not hire ‘bad apples,’” because of their rigorous screening of recruits.

Then they enter training, where a core theme is that it’s a threatening world out there. Recruits are told that a guy with a knife 21 feet away can run up and stab you before you have the chance to draw your gun. Even when your gun is drawn on someone with his back turned, he can pivot and pull his trigger before you have the chance to fire. Recruits listen to the desperate radio cries of officers killed in the line of duty, and the message is: Don’t ever let this happen to you. When in doubt, as the saying goes, it is “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.”

About 70 percent of police officers say they have never fired their gun while on the job, but on average, 71 hours of their training are devoted to firearm skills and 60 hours to self-defense, according to a 2013 Bureau of Justice report, while only 43 hours are spent on community-policing measures, such as cultural-diversity training, human relations, mediation, and conflict management.

Many training programs take recruits out of civilian life and put them in a boot-camp atmosphere. Years on the job have a tendency to reinforce this separation. I left the University of Chicago to become a police reporter on the South Side of that city. The first thing I learned, during that brief stint, was that the detectives in the Chicago Police Department were just as intelligent as the professors back at school. The second thing I learned is that cops have a profound sense of service, but have to spend their days among people who are at their worst moment, and often among individuals when they are at their worst—responding to domestic violence, rape, drug dealing, and murder.

“Because police officers are frequently exposed to traumatic events such as death, being shot at, and physical assault, rates of PTSD among police officers have been reported to be as high as 15 percent," the epidemiologist Erin McCanlies and her co-authors wrote in a 2017 paper. The pressures are intense. Though quotas are illegal in some states, many cops are urged by their superiors to ramp up their production—issuing more tickets and making more arrests. Officers are also encouraged to respond to calls more swiftly. Constant hyper-vigilance and stress become the background tone of life.

The organizational culture of their departments too often turns them into street warriors, occupying soldiers. Decades ago, the social scientist James Q. Wilson wrote that there are three types of police officer: the watchman, the legalist, and the service provider. Today there’s a fourth, the gladiator.

In the videos, we saw cops armored in riot gear. American law-enforcement agencies have acquired billions of dollars in surplus equipment, including bayonets and grenade launchers.

Casey Delehanty, Ryan Welch, Jack Mewhirter, and Jason Wilks have studied the relationship between militarization and public safety. In The Washington Post, Mewhirter and Welch wrote about their findings: “When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.” Problems are more likely to be seen as acts of war. The person on the other side of the equipment is rendered less visible.

We’re tracing the etiology of dehumanization here, the gradual closing-off of natural sympathy between one person and another. Almost all cops resist this pressure most of the time, and we owe them our respect, honor, and gratitude. Many of us know warm and compassionate police officers, who have rejected the worst parts of their environment—but the cultural pressures are there, nonetheless.

Some organizational cultures take a final few steps to instill a depersonalized worldview: The use of jargon, nicknames, insults, and euphemisms, all the linguistic tricks people use when they want to achieve moral distance from their surroundings and turn off the personal lens. The collective repression of emotion—the masks of cynicism, constant irony, and dark humor that groups adopt together. Cultural norms encourage officers to ignore their own vulnerability.

Then there is the constant presence of unacknowledged fear. As Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor, wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, police officers “shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.” They’re in somebody else’s space. They don’t know what onlookers are going to do. They often feel like they are desperately trying to impose order on chaos.

And so, in moments like the ones we’ve been witnessing in the past weeks, it all becomes us-versus-them. Some officers no longer see a human being. They see a perp.

Even hiring a diverse police force is no panacea. A 2016 Justice Department investigation into the Baltimore Police Department found consistent racially biased policing, in a force where, in 2015, more than 40 percent of the cops were African American. The problem lay not only in the minds of individual police officers, but also in the culture of the departments into which the officers entered.

We all construct reality according to the way we see the world. If the culture around you induces you to see others not as fully human, but as objects, that’s how you’re going to see them. Cops are human, and live on the jagged edges of a society that has deep racial disparities. The social construction of the reality too many officers inhabit is a core problem here—when the woman sitting cross-legged on the street is not a daughter or a sister, when the man on the ground is not a Christian or a neighbor—some officers start to see them as just objects they can kick or crush.

Three lines of reform have been popping up these days. The first and most famous is “defund the police.” This means different things, many of them quite sensible, to different people. But if it means reducing police spending so there are fewer cops around, it will not happen, and it will not help.

Over the decades, Americans have consistently said they want more police officers. A 2019 Civis Analytics poll for Vox found that 60 percent of African Americans, 65 percent of Latinos, and 74 percent of whites would like to see an increased number of police officers in high-crime areas. In 2015, just after the protests in response to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, Gallup asked Americans whether they would prefer to see a larger police presence in their neighborhood or a smaller one. Thirty-eight percent of African Americans said they would like to see a larger police presence, 51 percent said they wanted no change, and only 10 percent said they wanted a smaller police presence.

Fewer cops does not mean less brutality. Officers often use force more when they are tired. A 2017 study of the Sheriff’s Department in King County, in Washington State, found that if an officer works four additional hours of overtime in a week, the odds that he or she will discharge a firearm the following week rise by 15.2 percent. If you have fewer tired officers working longer shifts with more overtime, you will have more incidents. And, as Matt Yglesias has argued in Vox, research clearly shows that the presence of more cops leads to less crime, fewer police stops, a reduced likelihood of abuse when stops do occur, and less incarceration.

The other, more promising reforms involve changing procedures during an encounter and building a community-rooted police force in the first place. It’s striking how much procedural changes can achieve. Las Vegas police worked with the Center for Policing Equity, co-founded by the psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, to examine the department’s use of force. Their study led to a new policy, mandating that in a foot chase the officer leading the chase would not be the first person to lay hands on the suspect. That alone produced a 23 percent reduction in total use of force and an 11 percent reduction in officer injury. One study found that police departments that banned chokeholds and strangleholds experienced a 22 percent reduction in the rate of police killings.

But the big thing is changing the organizational culture of departments. It’s interesting that states with the highest numbers of police shootings per capita are in the West, where the gun ethos is more common: New Mexico, Alaska, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. The states with the lowest rates are in the East: Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Culture is invisible but all-determining. The police forces that have done well in reducing crime do not train their officers to see themselves as superheroes attacking bad guys. They have a stronger community-service ethos. Camden, New Jersey, became something of a model for reformers a few years ago when the entire police department was disbanded. It was replaced with a county-level agency less encumbered by union rules, which then hired more cops—411 officers, up from 250—and moved them out of their cars and back to walking the beats. Newark has handled the past few weeks reasonably well in part because it has not militarized its force, but also because in 2014, the city created the Newark Community Street Team, consisting of community leaders who take a public-health approach to violence and, in moments of tension, work to prevent looting and violence.

The relational things that are soft and squishy are actually hard and practical. And there’s evidence that this approach has been spreading over the years. In New York City, the NYPD has managed to dramatically reduce the number of shots fired each year. Police officers fired 1,292 bullets in 1996. By 2018, that number was down to 136. In 2014, 64 unarmed black people were killed by police and in 2015, 78 were. But in 2018 and 2019, 28 unarmed black people were killed each year. The pressure brought by Black Lives Matter, and the reforms that police departments are instituting in response, is having an effect.

Even the best police reforms can't erase the poison of racism in American society. But the changes in public opinion over the past three weeks have been astounding. Changing a culture, in the nation and in its police departments, is usually slow and necessary work. But norms can shift gradually and then all at once, and when they do, the effects can be historic.