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David Davidson-Methot: Time to examine the entire police culture

Other Voices
David Davidson-Methot

Given the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, there have been calls back and forth.

On the one hand are some demanding the complete dismantling of police forces, or “defunding” them. On the other are those who argue that the problem is just with a few “bad apples” and we shouldn’t throw out the entire contents of the police “barrel” just because of a few bad cops.

While the complete dismantling of policing may be a bit extreme, and therefore unlikely to actually occur, neither is it realistic to attribute the many — far too many — examples of police overuse of force simply to “a few bad cops.” Indeed, social psychologists have known for decades that this is a false concept.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who nearly a half century ago conducted the now infamous “Stanford Prison Experiment” in the summer of 1971 with randomly assigned college students enacting the roles of either “prison guard” or “prisoner,” found that it is the barrel, not the apples therein, which create “evil.” He details this in his 2007 book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil.” In the book, besides detailing the events of his prison experiment, he also reviews many other experiments conducted in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s — many attempting to understand what happened in Nazi Germany — involving people’s willingness to sacrifice their own internal moral code in the face of an external authority — be it culture, hierarchy, or some other motivation.

This suggests that, if we are to truly reform police practices, it is not enough to simply try to “weed out the bad apples” with better psychological evaluations of prospective, or current officers. Rather, the entire culture of police departments — the proverbial “barrel” in which individual police officers operate — needs to be carefully reviewed.

Dr. Zimbardo was later hired as an expert witness in defense of the American soldiers court-martialed for abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad, Iraq. Detailed in the same book, he explains how the acts committed by American soldiers were entirely predictable given the situation created by command higher up in the military and government intelligence. As demonstrated by psychological experiments conducted decades earlier, he argued it was inevitable that such abuses would occur.

It was not a few “bad apples” spoiling the “barrel” but rather the nature of the “barrel” that guaranteed the apples inside would spoil.

While we want justice for Mr. Floyd, and the many others who have suffered at the hands of over-reactive police, it will take much more to end the cycle of violence perpetrated by authorities supposedly dedicated to “protect and serve” citizens.

We need to look beyond simplistic slogans and answers to complex but known and understood problems that psychological science has studied and can address. But then, we’d have to accept science, and these days, even that is at times in doubt.

David Davidson-Methot lives in Grass Valley.


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