Police Brutality and Behaviorism Essay

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Police officers are authorized to use force when necessary, a policy that is generally used to protect innocent people from violence and abuse, and protect the general public from harm. However, the authorization to use force can be easily abused. Police abuse of power in the form of police brutality is an ethical problem because it constitutes abuse of power, and also leads to mistrust of law enforcement. Mistrust of law enforcement in turn undermines the authority and legitimacy of the police and prevents cooperative measures of stopping crime like community policing models. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2015), 44 million people on average each year in the United States have some kind of face-to-face contact with police and of those 44 million, just under two percent experience use of threatening or nonfatal force. While this number may seem small, on the ground the high rate of police brutality does hurt the objectives of the criminal justice system. Moreover, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2015) shows that the incidence rates of police brutality are far higher for non-whites than for whites. Black and Hispanic people are more likely to experience use of or threat of force than their white counterparts. While sociological tools of analysis are necessary for understanding the broader issues related to racial justice and police brutality, a psychological perspective can be perhaps more helpful in offering solutions to the problem. Behaviorism, for example, shows how officers of the law are socialized to use force under certain conditions or to react to racial stimuli. Following from this premise is the hypothesis that behaviorist tools can elicit change to police training, with the goal of reducing rates of police brutality for all populations.

One of the founding fathers of behaviorism, B.F. Skinner, proposed a science of human behavior in which behavior could be measured and controlled using scientific methods and principles (Baum, 2011). Coinciding with radical behaviorism is research in the realm of psychobiology, which shows there are biological causes and effects of behavior. These biological causes and effects can be measured using various means such as physiological tests, blood tests for hormones, and electroencephalograms. Specifically , police brutality can be construed of as a learned response to stressful situations. The stress response is “located both in the central nervous system and the periphery,” involving the release of hormones that either mitigate the stress or exacerbate it (Charmandari, Tsigos & Chrousos, 2005, p. 259). In this way, violent responses to the daily work of policing are a learned response to stress.
In fact, research shows that repeated exposure to stressful stimuli leads to “increased vulnerability to stressors,” something that may certainly happen to police who do experience stressful situations regularly on the job (Charmandari, Tsigos & Chrousos, 2005, p. 259). Given this, a behavioral physiological perspective would suggest that law enforcement officers need to have regular training in stress reduction techniques. Part of officer training should be to screen for those who have poor coping mechanisms that would put the person at risk for use of excessive force.

Basic behaviorism is based on the principle of conditioning: in which a behavior is enforced because it is rewarded in some way. Police brutality is actually rewarded in two ways. First, police use of force is expected of officers, and linked to concepts of masculinity and power (Weaver, 2014). Officers are socialized on the force to use threats and violence as part of their tactics when confronting the public. A second way police brutality is rewarded is through the criminal justice system itself. Officers are often acquitted of charges against them, making it so that their excessive use of force and violence go unpunished (Nodjimbadem, 2017). Following from this, it would make sense to start punishing bad behavior in cops rather than to reward it through a power hungry organizational culture. Likewise, it makes sense to have in place stricter laws and policies against police brutality, and to prosecute officers who use excessive force. Punishments could be internal to the force, such as suspensions or terminations, or they could be filed as criminal charges, leading to possible prison terms.

Race is a significant factor in police brutality, which can also be explained by basic behaviorism. As Weaver (2014) points out, many law enforcement officers act reflexively when they encounter a person of color: a cognitive process known as implicit bias. Implicit bias is part of ingrained learned behavior, a socially learned behavioral response to external stimuli. A quarter of all Americans who are fatally shot by police officers are African-American, even though African-Americans only comprise thirteen percent of the total population (Nodjimbadem, 2017). Reacting violently to black offenders more often than to white offenders, police are demonstrating either conscious or unconscious bias. The phenomenon has a behavioral component that persists across generations, as violence….....

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Baum, W. M. (2011). What is radical behaviorism. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 95(1): 119-126.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (2015). Police use of nonfatal force, 2002-2011. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/punf0211_sum.pdf

Charmandari, E., Tsigos, C. & Chrousos, G. (2005). Endocrinology of the stress response. Annual Review of Physiology 2005(67): 259-284.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life's domains Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 14-23.

Lawson, C. (n.d.). Police culture. Scan Journal of Media Arts Culture. http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/display.php?journal_id=159

Moore, J. (2013). Tutorial: Cognitive psychology as a radical behaviorist views it. The Psychological Record, 63(3), 667-680.

Nodjimbadem, K. (2017). The long, painful history of police brutality in the U.S. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-painful-history-police-brutality-in-the-us-180964098/

“Understanding Police Culture,” (n.d.). https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjSmaqBxOrYAhURZawKHQ2uDjEQFggxMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.springer.com%2Fcda%2Fcontent%2Fdocument%2Fcda_downloaddocument%2F9783319533087-c2.pdf%3FSGWID%3D0-0-45-1601154-p180639668&usg=AOvVaw1HSo10SPjNpfu9_MHkS2gn

Weaver, L. (2014). A psychological perspective on police violence. Lehigh University. https://www1.lehigh.edu/news/psychological-perspective-police-violence

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