Thursday, October 06, 2022

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A. The Root and Solution, Clarified

Surely, the officers who witnessed Justin Volpe's perversely triumphant parade would be shocked and disgusted under normal circumstances. Police officers are human beings, complete with emotions and internal dialogues every bit as rich and complex as any other's. How, then, does such a twisted culture come into existence? And how is it maintained? The Stanford Prison Experiment, a controversial simulation conducted at Stanford University in 1971, may shed light.

Two dozen middle-class college students, selected from a larger pool after screening for the most “normal, average, and healthy” of the bunch, were randomly assigned to act as either prisoner or guard in a mock-prison scenario. The prisoners were “arrested” at their homes by Palo Alto police and brought, blindfolded, to a makeshift prison in the basement of Stanford's Jordan Hall. On the second day, the prisoners revolted. Once the guards had the rebellion under control, “they steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation and dehumanization of the prisoners.” By the sixth day, several prisoners had experienced mental breakdowns and the guards' behavior had escalated to the point that the experiment was shut down. The guards:

repeatedly stripped their prisoners naked, hooded them, chained them, denied them food or bedding privileges, put them into solitary confinement, and made them clean toilet bowls with their bare hands .... They began using the prisoners as their playthings, devising ever more humiliating and degrading games for them to play. Over time, these amusements took a sexual turn, such as having the prisoners simulate sodomy on each other.

Unsurprisingly, the worst abuses occurred at night when the guards believed the experiment staff was not watching. The “Jekyll and Hyde” transformations of some guards stunned observers, and may help to explain the behavior of the police officers who led otherwise normal lives, but still managed to ignore Volpe's sadistic display or the cries of Thomas as he was beaten and suffocated to death. The “‘good guards' who did not personally debase the prisoners [of the Stanford Prison Experiment] failed to confront the worst of their comrades, allowing evil to ripen without challenge.”
Linking the inhuman conditions imposed by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 to the Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo, who orchestrated the original experiment and has spent decades studying the phenomenon, stated, “Human behavior is much more under the control of situational forces than most of us recognize or want to acknowledge. In a situation that implicitly gives permission for suspending moral values, many of us can be morphed into creatures alien to our usual natures.”

United States soldiers at Abu Ghraib punched and kicked detainees, videotaped and photographed them naked, arranged them in sexually explicit positions, and forced male detainees to masturbate while on camera, among other offenses. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that unreleased footage depicts children being sodomized in front of women in the prison. He also wrote that Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, author of an internal U.S. Army report on the atrocities, informed him of “a video of a male American soldier in uniform sodomizing a female detainee.” Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones described the abuses as “intentional violent or sexual abuses” not believed to be “permitted by any policy.” Of course, this type of abuse might not have been permitted by any official policy, but other investigators concluded that the worst abuses arose from an ““atmosphere of permissiveness,” much like the one present in U.S. police departments.

A report by Maj. Gen. George Fay attributed the more severe abuses at Abu Ghraib to an escalating “dehumanization” of detainees. Dehumanization is the root of much of this disturbing behavior because “it is frequently the most important precursor to moral exclusion, the process by which stigmatized groups are placed outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply.” Professor Philip Zimbardo called dehumanization “one of the central processes in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil,” and defined it as the process “by which certain other people or collectives of them, are depicted as less than human, as non-comparable in humanity or personal dignity to those who do the labeling.” Dehumanization was present in the Stanford Prison Experiment and at Abu Ghraib, and it is present in police departments throughout the United States when officers employ the idea of the ““other” to justify vicious attacks on civilians. Professor John P. Crank described the way police have used the military metaphor to dehumanize criminals: “It provided a way to view the police as protectors of society ... and to view criminals as amoral enemies--less than human. It promoted a perspective ... with enormous staying power, that criminals are enemies of the state, and, therefore, not worthy of state legal protections.” Others have noted the phenomenon as well. Robert Benson of Loyola Law School stated:

Police departments have always been organized as military-style hierarchies, but in recent decades they have gone beyond organization to mimic military tactics in the streets. This means, among other things, a maximum use of force even in minor situations, use of heavy, sophisticated gear and equipment, a threatening and hostile demeanor toward the public, and a siege mentality in which the police dehumanize the citizens into enemies in a war which must be won at all costs.

Social psychology has provided insight into the process of dehumanization. Research suggests that complex emotions like jealousy, sympathy, and hope are not applied to “out-groups” and are preferentially attributed to “in-groups.” This preferential assignment can effect change in altruism and empathy. These research findings are reinforced by a neurological component. A 2006 study established that “when participants viewed targets from highly stigmatized social groups (e.g., homeless people and drug addicts), who elicit disgust, the region of the brain typically recruited for social perception (the medial prefrontal cortex) was not recruited.”
Fortunately, the knowledge of being recorded can deter acts of misconduct. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.” In making that statement, Thomas Jefferson understood the intuitive truth that observation promotes ethical behavior. George Orwell recognized this same truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where ever-present government observation through “telescreens” was used to control a person's thoughts and actions. Researchers from a number of disciplines have documented this effect. In a 2011 study, researchers concluded “even very subtle cues that one is being observed can affect cooperative behaviors.” Participants in the study read brief accounts of two moral violations and rated the moral acceptability of each. According to the study, “[v]iolations were more strongly condemned in a condition where participants were exposed to surveillance cues ... than in a control condition.” Laboratory studies and experiments have shown that even the image of human eyes can cause participants to behave more cooperatively in economic games and to increase their level of contributions to an honesty box.

Moreover, in a 2011 study, researchers hung posters featuring either eyes or flowers exhorting cafeteria patrons to clear their litter. During periods where the posters featured eyes, patrons were twice as likely to clean up after themselves. Even in the absence of actual observation, the subjective perception that one might be observed was enough to generate behavior more in line with social expectations. Although this was a negative influence on the protagonists of Nineteen-Eighty Four, it is a positive influence concerning police officers in the U.S.

Some studies have directly evaluated the effect of surveillance on police misconduct. In a 2003 study, Benjamin Goold of Niigata University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, interviewed British officers being monitored by close-circuit televisions (CCTV) regarding the cameras' effects on their behavior. Initially, the majority of officers responded that the presence of cameras had no effect on their behavior or work. However, when pressed on the issue, over two-thirds of the officers “conceded that the introduction of cameras had forced them to be ‘more careful’ when out on patrol.” Some officers had heard stories about police officers being successfully prosecuted for unlawful arrests or assaults resulting from CCTV evidence. Many came to the conclusion that “the introduction of CCTV made it essential for them to ‘go by the book,’ or at least create the appearance of doing so.” An investigation using similar methodology performed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police came to the same conclusion. While only one-fifth of the officers responded that the cameras altered their performance on initial surveys, a majority of officers confessed in subsequent interviews that they act with more professionalism and courtesy when under surveillance. These studies strongly indicate that recording officers in their confrontations with civilians will, in addition to facilitating successful prosecution, deter acts of misconduct in the first place.

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