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Everything we think about police reform is wrong

We need to think more about who the police are, instead of solely focusing on what the police do.

By Brian Klaas

On 7 January five Memphis police officers brutally beat a 29-year-old black man named Tyre Nichols. He later died from his injuries. The gruesome, disturbing footage of the attack from the officers’ body cameras has, yet again, spurred outrage over another life cut short at the hands of law enforcement.

In the UK there has also been public outrage over officers who have committed serial rapes, and other revelations since the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by an officer in 2021.

We need that anger. But we must harness it to create more effective policy reform that solves the underlying problem. Like mass shootings, police killings are now a familiar, routine cycle in American news. A person – often a black man – dies while being detained by the police or in police custody. The police 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 get involved, producing a hagiography of the cop while vilifying the victim. Was he on drugs? Did he resist arrest? He wasn’t exactly an angel.

Then footage is released that contradicts the police narrative. The criminal justice system gets involved. Sometimes the officers are held accountable. Other times they aren’t. The political left protests, calls for prosecution, denounces racism and demands greater oversight of cops, including more widespread use of body cams. But nothing systemic changes.

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Then we do it all over again. Around 1,100 Americans are killed by police in the US each year, a per capita rate that’s much higher than other comparable rich democracies. We have to break the cycle.

How? By implementing major systemic change that recognises it’s better and easier to attract so-called good apples to police forces in the first place than to try to turn bad apples good.

Whenever anyone in uniform commits an act of horrific violence, it’s not long before someone in the debate invokes the Stanford prison experiment. For those of you unfamiliar with the experiment, 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 ways so horrible that the experiment had to be shut down early. The lesson seemed clear: power corrupts.

[See also: Is this the new policing bill in action?]

However, about 15 years ago, researchers at Western Kentucky University 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. 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. The fundamental problem with American policing is a self-selection problem. Power centres with a history of abusive, militaristic and racist violence disproportionately attract people who want to abuse minorities or use lethal force.

Yes, many police officers are true public servants, but there are a disproportionate number of officers who aren’t. 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 violence. Body cameras may sometimes help to get justice after violence is committed, but it’s a band-aid solution to a 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.

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 behaviour 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 to explain who ends up with a badge.

Watch this recruitment video from a few years ago in Doraville, Georgia, a small town outside Atlanta:

The people who signed up to the force 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 by contrast recognised 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?”

[See also: The Metropolitan police is a danger to women]

Here are two videos that couldn’t be more different from the Doraville recruitment video. Can you imagine these being used for American policing?

The campaigns were effective: more people applied to become cops in New Zealand 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.

Another case: 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 hired people who weren’t part of the old system. It worked; corruption was stamped out.

There are important differences between New Zealand and America, and between Georgia the country and Georgia the state. But the principles embedded in these reforms offer crucial lessons that should be applied to the US.

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 US and so there’s no centralised service to reform. And it’s not possible for the US to completely rebuild its force as Georgia did.

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 racialised 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.

Changing police culture and fixing recruitment will take years. Yet the conversation can’t end there: we also need to change how police are trained and institute much more de-escalation training as standard.

Police officers in the US receive far less training than officers in other comparable countries, but even if the training increased, the type of training that’s currently 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 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, showing how UK police officers deal with a man threatening them with a machete. Does anyone think that this man would still be alive if he did the same thing anywhere in the US? He would’ve been shot dead in seconds.

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 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. To truly reduce police violence we need to think more about who the police are, instead of solely focusing on what the police do.

[See also: The Met Police has proved yet again it is a haven for sex offenders]

A version of this piece first ran on Brian Klaas’s Substack “The Garden of Forking Paths”.

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