The Myth Propelling America’s Violent Police Culture

I worked in law enforcement for decades. Officers who see themselves as noble heroes can be the ones who do the most harm.

A collage showing a police officer, a hand holding a gun, and a paper shooting target
Getty; Mark Harris

Some 25 years ago, I remember sitting on the Shooting Review Board for the King County Sheriff’s Office, a large metropolitan police department serving the Seattle region. I recall listening to an investigator explain the chain of events that had led to the fatal shooting of a man fleeing the scene of an armed robbery. My memory is that the man had a long criminal record and had just committed another felony. Not a sympathetic figure to me or the public, but still a human being.

The presentation we heard contained evidence that the responding officers’ tactics had created the conditions that made the shooting necessary, to ensure their own safety. (The term of art is “officer-created jeopardy.”) But the review process had been negotiated with the police union and by design had remained out of the public’s view and tightly focused on the moment the officers had fired their weapons.

I had misgivings, but ultimately, I voted with the rest of the board to find the shooting justified. As their precinct commander, I knew that the officers involved were good people, and I didn’t have the heart or courage to call out their bad tactics. I just let it go. I knew nothing about the person they’d killed—except that he had a criminal record and had just committed a felony. That was enough for me to rationalize my vote, and thus dodge the risk of being seen as a traitor to my tribe. Over my 33 years with the sheriff’s office, I participated in more than a dozen such review boards, and every time, I voted in defense of the officers’ actions.

I ignored how the board’s validation of bad tactics perpetuated future bad practices. Or how it mirrored the cultural tolerance for rough and aggressive tactics in high-crime neighborhoods. The board’s approach reinforced the myth about how policing should be done in those neighborhoods—with those kinds of people. It was considered the cost of doing business.

My acceptance of this culture began to shift when I ran for sheriff in 2004 and had to listen to people outside of my cop cave during my campaign. I spent a lot of time in neighborhoods that weren’t used to positive, personal attention from police leaders. When people working for my campaign suggested that I avoid reaching out to residents in such neighborhoods because they don’t turn out to vote or donate much to campaign funds, it shocked and angered me so much that I did the opposite and focused on even more time with them. I’m glad I did. The trust and relationships I built in conversations with people who didn’t love the police gave me insight into the damage done by police indifference to the humanity of people they hurt.

Then, Washington State legislation enacted in 2019 mandating more transparent and comprehensive investigations of deadly force required me, as the director of the Criminal Justice Training Commission, to seek community input on police training and investigative practices. This resulted in me spending many, many hours face-to-face with families of people killed by police. There were so many mothers with sons the same age as my sons. I couldn’t turn away. My heart hurt for them, and all the rationalizations I had employed over the years felt as hollow as they now sounded. I was forced to confront the deep chasm between police culture and the lived experience of communities who feel occupied rather than served by police.

We, America’s law-enforcement leaders, have to change. I understand the motivation of police leaders who believe they are protecting the “good” men and women who join this profession with honorable intentions. I was one of them. But ignorance and good intentions don’t justify or eliminate the actual harm caused by misguided actions. I cringe when police leaders describe officers like Derek Chauvin as “bad apples” or “rogue cops,” as if their behavior is a surprise. How can anyone be surprised? And nothing would have changed without the public exposure of the video showing George Floyd’s death. This is what happens in a culture that accepts, rationalizes, and makes excuses for indefensible behavior and prioritizes group loyalty over speaking out.

My generation of police was socialized in the comforting myth of police as heroes, engaged in a righteous battle. We didn’t learn the history of how police have been used to maintain order for those in power, such as on slave patrols or through enforcing Jim Crow laws, busting unions, or waging the War on Drugs. The insular culture of policing protects the flattering myth of heroes and keeps the ugly original mission hidden. The image of the noble hero, holding the line between good and evil, forms the very foundation of police group identity, intensifying the “us versus them” mentality and feeding on the profound human need to belong to a group.

When I worked the street, the fear of being ostracized was stronger than the fear of getting shot. One incident stands out: I joined a team of undercover narcotics detectives on a poorly conceived and nearly catastrophic drug bust. The tactical plan made no sense and seemed reckless to me. But I was the new kid on the team and kept my mouth shut. My partner nearly got his head blown off. It was one of those “but for the grace of God” moments. I still shudder when I think about how I would have faced his wife if she had become a widow and his kids had lost their father.

Though the vest, the gun, the training, and the equipment all lessen the physical danger of the job, nothing assuages the fear of rejection from one’s group.

I progressed through the ranks and eventually became responsible for an entire police tribe. The fear of rejection never subsided. But building those relationships with people hurt by bad policing gave me strength to keep challenging the status quo. I began to see myself as part of a larger tribe—one that includes the community. This shift in mentality, in seeing the broader community as something police are a part of, not something they are set against, is what needs to happen across policing.

This past weekend, as I watched the videos of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death, I asked myself, Why does this keep happening? But I know the answer: It’s police culture—rooted in a tribal mentality, built on a false myth of a war between good and evil, fed by political indifference to the real drivers of violence in our communities. We continue to use police to maintain order as a substitute for equality and adequate social services. It will take a generation of courageous leaders to change this culture, to reject this myth, and to truly promote a mission of service—a mission that won’t drive officers to lose their humanity.