Why Police Can Become Brutal: Part 2

During recent documentation of police brutality – cell phone videos, dash-cam videos, security cameras – I’ve yet to see a solid social psychological explanation. And yet such an explanation exists.

As an undergrad in sociology, I became aware of the famous/infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Without going into all the details (you can google it and read for yourself), the experiment demonstrates what happens when “normal,” ordinary people are thrust into power relationships.

Within days the “prisoners” rebelled and the “guards” became increasingly violent, angry and sadistic. To break the solidarity of the prisoners, the guards introduced “psychological measures,” which included offering “privileges” to compliant prisoners.

The rebellion also had the effect of increasing solidarity among the guards, who now increased their surveillance, control and aggression.

It’s important to remember these were college students who had volunteered for this experiment, and yet the surrounding circumstances and their “pretend” identities pushed them into real-life responses.

Now imagine such a power arrangement conferred “officially” on police recruits issued with lethal weapons, and with permission to react as they see fit. The uneven power relationship between the identity of “police” and “citizen” works into the psyche, and when we add to this the elements of institutional racism, we come up with the ingredients for the kind of fatal brutality we see almost every day.


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