Samuel L. Jackson is at it again. In his latest film, Lakeview Terrace, he again plays an intricate and frightening outlaw, just as he has in Pulp Fiction and other popular films. His new movie has a twist, though: this time, Jackson’s character is a police officer who intimidates and harasses his new neighbors, an interracial couple.
While the idea of an outlaw is frightening, it also holds interest and appeal to the public-at-large. When the outlaw is a person in a trusted position of authority, it creates even more interest. Rogues in authority have the ability and desire to use their powers indiscriminately and punish at will. For some police officers, this indiscriminate use of power comes in the form of police brutality.
The notion of police brutality captivates and terrifies the public. Police officers assume a position of high power in society in many ways. They are trusted to use their skill and judgment to subdue dangerous criminals, but not to harm them any more than is necessary to get them into the subdued state. It is a tremendous challenge for any human to regulate their emotions and actions in such volatile circumstances, but that is what police are asked to do. When they fail, the result is often a crossing of the line and the use of brutal conduct toward citizens.
How does our own thinking affect police brutality? Do the notions held by police and the public shape or influence the forms police brutality takes? A review of criminal justice literature suggests that researchers are much concerned with these questions. My review focused on police brutality and group bias, the effect of police brutality on public opinion, and the code of silence used by many officers to protect others who have committed acts of brutality. Ultimately, these three topics are highly connected with each other and with notions of appropriate conduct by those in authority.
Do police officers show up at certain neighborhoods with a greater willingness to use force? Lersch, Bazley, Mieczkowski, and Childs (2008) worked to identify links between the use of police force and specific neighborhood characteristics. Their research question attempted to link specific characteristics of different residential areas with a likelihood of police use of force.
The researchers examined a municipal police department in the American South for a full year. They used the department’s own Use of Force reports to gather data. They also used crime tract and census data to study factors such as race and ethnicity, composition of family, how quickly people moved in and out, levels of crime, and individual “levels of active physical resistance” (Lersch, et al., 2008). The researchers found that police use of force was most likely determined by the racial composition of a neighborhood and by its designated active physical resistance level. The researchers suggest that the ideas police have about certain groups of people and where they live can lead to a greater likelihood of police use of force when officers investigate problems in those areas.
Weitzer (2002) approaches the issue from a different tact. His research interest seeks to determine what the public think about the police. Weitzer understands that perceptions of police brutality are affected by publicity and often lead to lower public approval of police performance in general. He notes that a single officer accused of police brutality can cause an entire department to become suspect, fall under scrutiny, and lose hard-won public trust.
Weitzer’s methods involved using surveys to track public sentiment about police before and after well publicized police scandals in New York City and Los Angeles. He divided respondents into groups of Whites, African Americans, and Hispanics, and then measured and compared their attitudes. Ultimately, Weitzer finds that highly-publicized incidents of police brutality have a strong and negative impact on opinions across all groups who responded.
Skolnick (2004), meanwhile, explores another way that stakeholders “think” about police brutality. He explores the notion that a “Blue Code of Silence” fostered by the fraternity and loyalty that many officers share provides protection for those who engage in police brutality or other criminal acts. Specifically, Skolnick wants to explore the causes of the code of silence, how it is enforced, how it gets in the way of police investigations, and how its influence can be reduced in the future. He firmly asserts that police have a “narrow world of values, understandings, and conceptions of loyalty” that works with the code of silence to encourage and facilitate many forms of police brutality, corruption, and violence.
Skolnick explains that most occupational groups are fertile grounds for loyalty to and support of colleagues, but that this bonding is often more intense in police culture. Police officers are constantly under threat of attack, and must also vigorously and consistently scan the public for potential threats and criminal conduct. This bonding is so tight that many police officers become reluctant to report to superiors any misconduct from their peers.
Other officers might be reluctant to report misconduct because of fear of retaliation. Even if an officer feels it is morally correct to report an infraction, he might also feel as if he was going against not just the officer named in the report, but all of the other officers who comply with the code of silence (Skolnick, 2004).
Skolnick’s findings have serious implications for the work of Weitzer and Lersch et al. It is well established in labor history that a unified front of workers of any type can make a stand against a greater foe, perhaps protecting themselves or making significant social changes along the way. But while a unified front of police officers can observe a code of silence and refuse to come clean about a matter, the public will recognize what type of tactic this is and what it suggests about those officers.
Refusing to acknowledge responsibility shows an utter lack of willingness to discuss or even recognize a problem in the police department. If police continue to use the code of silence to stymie investigations into officers’ conduct, they will breed more and more public mistrust. Every officer knows it is more difficult to be effective when members of the public do not trust police. Once the downward spiral begins in earnest, it is hard to stop and reverse.
For Lersch et al., Skolnick’s code of silence could mean trouble for specific targeted groups in certain areas of cities. If police officers observe other officers using more force or inappropriate methods on members of certain races in certain neighborhoods, they will have to decide whether or not to observe the code of silence. If enough officers decide to ignore police misconduct, a critical mass is realized and it becomes more and more difficult for any one officer to come forth and complain.
Skolnick suggests that the key to reducing police brutality comes from positive, strong leadership. He relates the example of Chief Richard Pennington, who took over a beleaguered New Orleans Police Department reputed to be one of the worst in America. He replaced his Internal Affairs investigators and brought in outside consultants to turn the department around. He also notes that accountability for good conduct by officers goes all the way down the line of command.
Future researchers have several interesting directions in which to take questions about police brutality. With the American economy in such a deep and serious mess, we hear much about issues of “transparency” in the news. Americans are more distrustful and skittish than they have been for years. They need to trust the institutions in charge, including the police, and that means being forthright and complete when mistakes have been made. How can police departments’ procedures and conduct be more observable to the public, yet still be effective? Until the public believes the code of silence will not keep officers from speaking up about misconduct, it will be challenging to completely win their trust.
Also, how can the public work with police departments to prevent brutality? Right now, lawsuits are a common way for individuals to make an impact on how police departments are run. Researchers should study ways to create community representation and liaisons that reduce police brutality. Other departments with successful community review boards and procedures could be studied to identify emerging “best practices.”
Other researchers might focus on responses to police brutality at different levels of government. Identifying problems, punishing offenders, officer training, and supervisory methods all differ drastically at the local, state, and federal levels. What mechanisms are working well now? Where are our failures? We need identification of the most likely ways to improve police misconduct issues and implement them with uniformity across levels of government.
Further research could also focus on individual officers. Useful studies would include those that identified typical personal characteristics of police likely to use excessive force. The quality and frequency of training on proper conduct could be critical in reducing violent acts. Researchers need to explore why some police are violent, and individual departments must find ways to control officers with a history of over-aggressive conduct.
Police brutality is usually thought of as a physical act. Yet our ideas about it are more likely than anything to produce a substantial reduction of this embarrassing problem. Police officers will need to balance their loyalty to their colleagues with a respect for the law and a strict adherence to the rules of good conduct. They should be aware of their own thoughts and biases at all times. They should also know that the public is watching closely, and draws conclusions about their local police force every time they see them in action – for better or for worse.
Lersch, K., Bazley, T., Mieczkowski, T., & Childs, K. (2008). Police use of force and neighborhood characteristics: An examination of structural disadvantage, crime, and resistance. Policing and Society, 18, 282-300.
Skolnick, J. (2004). Corruption and the blue code of silence. In Sarre, R.; Das, D., & Albrecht, H. J. (Eds.) Policing corruption: International perspectives. Lanham, MD Lexington Books.
Weitzer, R. (2002). Incidents of police misconduct and public opinion. Journal of Criminal Justice 20, 397-408.