How to Reduce Police Violence
Policing reform is usually tied to body cameras and oversight—how the police behave. Not enough attention is paid to who the police are—and the abusive systems that attract them in the first place.
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Just over three weeks ago, five Memphis police officers killed Tyre Nichols. The gruesome, disturbing footage has, yet again, spurred outrage and anger over another life cut short at the hands of law enforcement.
We need that anger. But we must harness it to create more effective policy reform that solves the underlying problem. Otherwise, it’ll just keep happening, and we’ll all just continue learning the names of those who are murdered by police officers.
Like mass shootings, police killings are now a familiar, routine cycle in American news. A man—often a Black man—dies while being detained by the police or in police custody. The department issues a press release that denies wrongdoing, misrepresents the violence, and, sometimes, insinuates that the victim was to blame.
If the officers are white, then the Blue Lives Matter folks in the right-wing ecosystem spring into action, producing a hagiography of the cop while vilifying the victim. Was he on drugs? Did he resist arrest? He wasn’t exactly an angel. What was he doing there, anyway? It was probably his fault.
Then, footage is released which contradicts the police narrative. The criminal justice system gets involved. Sometimes, the officers are held accountable. Other times, they get away with it. Conspiracy theories then emerge on the political right, arguing that the real cause of death has been hidden. It was a drug overdose, not police brutality.
The political left protests, calls for prosecution, denounces racism, and demands greater oversight of cops, including more widespread use of bodycams.
But nothing systemic changes.
Then, a little while later, the cycle resets. We do it all over again. Like clockwork, around 1,100 Americans are killed by police in the United States each year, a per capita rate that’s much higher than other comparable rich democracies.
This chart from the BBC, drawing on data from the 2020 Prison Policy Initiative Report, shows how much of an outlier the United States is regarding police killings.
We have to break the cycle.
How? The answers lie with the Stanford Prison Experiment, a little known police reform in New Zealand, and major systemic change that recognizes it’s better and easier to attract good apples in the first place than to try to turn bad apples good.
Power Attracts the Corruptible
Whenever anyone in uniform commits an act of horrific violence, it’s not long before someone in the debate invokes the Stanford Prison Experiment. There’s just one problem. Everything you think you know about that experiment is wrong.
For those of you unfamiliar with the experiment, here’s a brief summary. In the early 1970s, the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo built a fake jail on campus and placed an ad, asking for volunteers to participate in a “psychological study of prison life.” He then divided those who volunteered into prison guards and prisoners. Soon, the prison guards were abusing the prisoners in horrific ways—so horrific that the experiment had to be shut down early.
The lesson seemed clear: put on the right uniform, and you, too, can become a monster. Power corrupts.
However, about fifteen years ago, researchers at Western Kentucky University decided to check something. They replicated the recruitment advertisement for the Stanford Prison Experiment. Then, in half the ads, they tweaked the wording slightly. They changed “for a psychological study of prison life” to “for a psychological study.” The idea was to see who volunteered, depending on whether the wording suggested wielding power, or a generic study.
The results were astonishing. The study showed that people who responded to the advertisement that included the word “prison” scored much higher in terms of “aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and significantly lower on dispositional empathy and altruism.” As I wrote in my latest book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us:
That finding could invert the conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment in ways that fundamentally transform our understanding of power. Instead of demonstrating that ordinary people thrust into power can become sadistic, it may demonstrate that sadistic people seek out power. Maybe we’ve had it backward. Maybe power is just a magnet for bad people rather than a force that turns good people bad. In that formulation, power doesn’t corrupt—it attracts.
This has important implications for policing, particularly in the context of US departments that are known for a militaristic approach to law enforcement—and a history of disproportionate racial violence. (I’ve seen this dynamic up close, as I grew up in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered).
The fundamental problem with American policing is not that the uniform turns people bad. Instead, there’s a self-selection problem. Power attracts corruptible people more generally, and power centers with a history of abusive, militaristic, and racist violence disproportionately attract people who want to abuse minorities, or use lethal force. Those are the exact people who shouldn’t be in uniform, because they see that kind of culture as an attractive profession. But that’s too often who applies. People who should never be in uniform self-select into it.
Yes, many police officers are true public servants. But there are a disproportionate number of officers who aren’t. And that’s where the violence comes from. That is part of the reason why American cops commit domestic abuse at a rate that is estimated to be between two and four times the national average.
Oversight can’t prevent such tragedies. Body cameras may sometimes help get justice after a police murder, but it’s a band-aid solution to a more widespread, deeper wound.
You have to fix the system. And it turns out it’s much easier to get good people into uniform than it is to turn bad people good.
Lessons from New Zealand and Georgia
I’ve been studying leaders and power for more than a decade, and one of the key lessons I’ve learned is that systems are crucial. Good systems cause people to adjust their behavior, but perhaps more importantly, systems that are positively perceived tend to attract good people who want to replicate that success.
As a result, police recruitment—and the perception of any given department—is a hidden variable that helps explain who ends up with a badge.
Watch this recruitment video from a few years ago in Doraville, Georgia, a small town outside Atlanta. It’s completely bonkers.
The people who signed up to be a cop after watching that video are precisely the people who should never have been hired. It would have been a highly effective screen to figure out who not to hire, but instead, it was used to draw people into the department.
As I wrote about in Corruptible, New Zealand recognized how important police recruitment was to attracting the right kinds of people, so they launched an advertising scheme that painted policing as public service. The slogan of the campaign was “Do you care enough to be a cop?”
Here are two videos that couldn’t be more different from the Doraville, Georgia recruitment video. Can you imagine these being used for American policing?
Lo and behold, more people applied to become New Zealand cops after these videos were produced. Crucially, the demographics also changed. The applicants were more diverse. More women and ethnic minorities applied. Applicants had different personalities too, drawn to public service, rather than power. Outcomes improved.
Changing the perception of policing—and proactively adjusting the values embedded within it—yielded major dividends. It was an effective, low-cost solution. Rather than trying to reform bad apples by videotaping them all the time, they sought to attract good apples.
Two decades ago, Georgia—the country, not the state—took an even more aggressive approach to reforming its policing. After a major political upheaval, the new reformist government wanted to tackle its corrupt police culture, which had a terrible reputation. They fired everyone and started from scratch, re-hiring people who weren’t part of the old system. It worked.
Now, there are important differences between New Zealand and America, or between Georgia the country and Georgia the state. But the principles embedded in these reforms offer crucial lessons that should be applied to the United States.
It won’t be as easy as in New Zealand, partly because the rates of violence in America are so much higher to begin with, and partly because there’s no national recruitment service in the United States (so police recruitment can’t easily be reformed nationally). And it’s not possible for the US to start from scratch as they did in Georgia the country.
Nonetheless, we’d all be better off if recruitment and police values became a central part of the reform discussion, and we’d also be better off if some departments worked to refresh their ranks, aggressively weeding out officers with any history of disproportionate use of force.
Instead, we’re stuck in a vicious cycle. Every time police officers kill someone, it reinforces the perception of policing as a militaristic profession, which compounds the problem of who wants to become a cop. This is the horrible truth about police killings: they make future killings more likely, simply because they deter people motivated by public service from self-selecting into a culture that is increasingly unpopular and associated with racialized violence.
It’s a chicken or egg problem. To fix policing, you need fewer aggressive, violent, racist cops. But to recruit fewer aggressive, violent, racist cops, you need to make policing appear less aggressive, violent, and racist. As with New Zealand, America needs a national strategy to change policing systemically, starting with recruitment and departmental culture.
De-Escalation and Training
Changing police culture and fixing recruitment will take years. In the meantime, oversight is crucial. But the conversation can’t end there. We also need to change how police are trained, and institute much more de-escalation training as standard for American cops.
Police officers in the United States receive far less training than officers in other comparable countries. As this BBC Reality Check graphic shows, it’s not even close.
But even if the training increased, the type of training that’s required is completely skewed toward escalation rather than de-escalation. According to a 2013 US Department of Justice report, the average American officer received 71 hours of firearms training, but only 21 hours of de-escalation training. And that problem is only made worse by the fact that many American police departments actively recruit combat veterans, who learned how to wield weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than Arizona and Indiana.
Just watch this video below, of how UK police officers deal with a man aggressively threatening them with a machete. Does anyone think that this man would still be alive if he did the same thing anywhere in the United States? He would’ve been shot dead within seconds.
Clearly, sweeping reforms are needed. Around the edges tweaks won’t cut it.
Yes, we need bodycams, training, de-escalation, and better oversight. We need better internal mechanisms to weed out vicious, violent cops who abuse the public or resort to the use of force too easily. But by focusing so much on those adjustments, we’ve lost sight of how important it is to overhaul police systems—and how recruiting the right people is a far better solution than trying to “fix” the wrong individuals.
Tyre Nichols deserves justice. In the short-term, that means convictions for the officers who killed him—with lengthy sentences. But in the longer-term, true justice would mean preventing future police killings. It’s a solvable problem. But to truly reduce police violence, we need to think more about who the police are, instead of solely focusing on what the police do.
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