Identifying Roots of Flawed Police Culture

By Phil Brooks
Sunday, August 11th, 2013 @ 12:46AM

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ACD has recently drawn attention to the growing problem of the militarization of U.S. police culture in the form of a blog article by Senior Fellow Bill Scott on the burgeoning use of SWAT teams.  ACD is not alone in this, by any means, although the literature is only beginning to develop. Regrettably, evidence on the actual mentality of police departments in the U.S. is still largely anecdotal.  However, as Phil Brooks points out, there are cultural influences and historical circumstances that need to be watched carefully if what appears to be a growing trend dangerous to freedom is to be turned aside.

Identifying Roots of Flawed Police Culture:

“One Two Three…Nothing Wrong With Me!”

by Phil Brooks*

 

I read with interest Bill Scott’s “Starve the Beast” along with Radley Balko’s “Rise of the Warrior Cop” in the July 30th, 2013, ACD/EWI Blog.

Both were effective commentaries.

That said, we need to identify the roots of flawed police culture in the United States.  It’s important they are understood & addressed—or else there can be no retracing to a more civil & responsible police presence in our communities. Police leadership will continue to promulgate bad policies absent a cultural shift–despite funding stoppages to mitigate them as suggested by Scott & Balko.

At a minimum, officers will still be armed with lethal force.

Meaning fine citizens like Erik Scott will continue to wake up any given day surprised to find it is their last–targets of senseless & avoidable violence by our police.  The facts of his case are discussed by his father, ACD/EWI’s Bill Scott, on a YouTube channel called “Lawless America”. CLICK TO PLAY

A compelling novelized account of Erik’s senseless death at the hands of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers can be found here.

The thoughts below may help bridge the gap to understanding flawed police culture.  Then a few suggestions on changing it for the better follow.

Linking Violence & Video Game Culture

Recent scholarship links violence & violent video games.  Iowa State University Professor of Sociology, Matt DeLisi et al, have reported “Violent video game playing is correlated with aggression…[and is] associated with antisociality even in a clinical sample….”

Brad Bushman, a Psychologist at Ohio State University reports, “We did a comprehensive review of every experimental study, reviewing 381 effects from studies involving 130,000 people, and results show that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and physiological arousal….”

Shoot or Die Conditioning

Two successive generations of young Americans have grown up bathed in interactive gun battle video games posing quick decision, “Shoot or Die” scenarios repeated over & over, tens of thousands of times or more, during adolescence and continuing into adulthood.  Repetitive proprioception & visualization hard-wires reflexive physiological & psychological brain ‘norms’ over time–a tenet of any simulation-based training program.  Physiologically, this process is called myelination.  Please see Daniel Coyle’s excellent illustration of this effect for his book “The Talent Code”.  Properly applied, myelination can perfect a pianist’s technique, a mathematician’s cognitive skill, a golfer’s swing or a shooter’s aim.  Another way to describe it–to use the shooter’s parlance–is “Trigger Time”. By the time young Americans are employed as police officers–often after a stint of military service–they have become ‘hardwire habituated’ to shooting episodes involving quick, life or death decisions in a reflexive, ‘kill or be killed’ manner.  Muscle memory & psychological conditioning are now ‘sighted in’.

Shoot or Die Culture & Summary Resolution

Simultaneously, these same young Americans have been bathed in constant, pervasive, musical & theatrical visual media from internet, movies & television programming which depict ‘role model’ protagonists acting out the “Shoot or Die” scenario to a violent “Summary Resolution”.  These audio & visual cultural ‘norms’ confirm the onboard physiological & psychological brain ‘norms’ habituated in these young people.  This is very powerful, especially because young people routinely seek validation & confirmation of their internal, personal experience.  It is a process consummated over years & thousands of hours of exposure to these stimuli.

As a central example of this pervasive media inundation, consider the proliferative YouTube style internet video postings with highly emotionally charged music containing what has been interpreted by these young people in their videos as “Summary Violence” lyrics–accompanied by scenes of actual combat & police actions of these two generations of Americans. Please see the following: CLICK TO PLAY and CLICK TO PLAY.

Perhaps no more ubiquitous anthem of this species of posting is the song “Bodies” recorded by the Dallas, Texas, metal band Drowning Pool in 2001. The lyrics of the song, written by now deceased Drowning Pool singer Dave Williams, were described by him as meant to signal the occasion at which concert-goers should assemble in the ‘mosh pit’–the central dance area in front of the stage–to dance uninhibitedly, presumably during the crescendo of live performance.  A careful look at the lyrics demonstrate that it is easy for youth habituated to the violence of “Summary Resolution”–in video games and popular culture & later in the actual violence of combat while serving in the armed forces–to apply their own far more lethal context to the song.  With the last two generations of Americans able to listen to songs of this cast–on demand–under a uniquely personal context afforded them by portable devices & earpiece headsets, they would likewise be exposed to perhaps many thousands of repetitions of the emotional charge present in this kind of song, while participating in simulated or actual combat conditions.  The lyrics follow:

“Bodies”

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Beaten  Why for

Can’t take much more

Here we go  Here we go  Here we go

One  Nothing wrong with me

Two   Nothing wrong with me

Three  Nothing wrong with me

Four  Nothing wrong with me

One   Something’s got to give

Two  Something’s got to give

Three   Something’s got to give

Now

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Push me again

This is the end

Here we go  Here we go  Here we go

One   Nothing wrong with me

Two   Nothing wrong with me

Three   Nothing wrong with me

Four   Nothing wrong with me

One   Something’s got to give

Two   Something’s got to give

Three   Something’s got to give

Now

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Skin against skin  blood and bone

You’re all by yourself  but you’re not alone

You wanted in  now you’re here

Driven by hate  consumed by fear

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

One   Nothing wrong with me

Two   Nothing wrong with me

Three   Nothing wrong with me

Four   Nothing wrong with me

One   Something’s got to give

Two   Something’s got to give

Three   Something’s got to give

Now

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Hey  Go

Hey  Go

Hey  Go

Hey  Go

The themes of distress, anguish, rebellion & even torment seem personally valid to the Drowning Pool audience of disaffected youth angered by perceived or real adversarial, personal circumstances.  Perhaps it was ever thus for the young.  But clearly the Internet postings of combat/police videos, backed by a “Bodies” sound track, have morphed this teen angst lament into a much larger context infused with all the rage & fear of armed conflict.

Further, given that the US military experience of these two generations has been in good measure occasioned by geopolitical retribution for Fundamentalist Islamic barbarity, these young American warriors have consciously made the leap to drape a cloak of Western outrage over their familiar teen rite of passage song.  It is worthwhile to review the video postings & lyrics above again with this larger political context in mind.  Viewed through this lens, one is hard pressed not to cry “Right On!” to our modern young Templars!  Let’s kick some Fundamentalist tail!

The problem though is there is not necessarily any ethical or moral framework restraining some of these young Americans for reasons I will touch on below.  So their actions–while righteous in combat against offending Islamic zealots–are informed more by an extension of their own video game & cultural “Summary Resolution” experience than by any Western ethic or morality.  There’s a piece missing.  And yet these are precisely the young Americans possessing the technical skills sought by police departments in our country, because no other segment of the population–save ex-military or reservists–have occasion to develop such skills.

Further amplifying the music, video game & media impact on these young Americans is the very nature of the sound itself.   Bart Billings, psychologist, retired US Army Colonel, and Founder of the annual International Military & Civilian Combat Stress Conference has studied the effects of High Amplitude-Low Frequency Sound Modulation in both social settings like rock concerts & in military settings where high decibel, unidirectional sound waves most acutely impact human physiology & behavior.  These sounds cause activation of the ‘sympathetic nervous system’–the ‘fight or flight’ response in humans–as result of stimulation of portions of the ‘ancient brain’ namely the amygdalae & the hypothalamus.  This sets in motion the release of adrenaline and other physiological processes that prepare a human for action.  Dr. Billings has documented that patrons in the front rows of loud music concerts, deck personnel on aircraft carriers habitually working near loud jet engines, artillerymen and others exposed to chronic loud, bass sounds become addicted to the ‘adrenaline rush’ that occurs on such occasions.

Listen CLICK TO PLAY to “Bodies” again with this in mind and you can come to fully appreciate how the ‘rehearsal’ of this emotional experience over & over again in young Americans leads to adrenaline addiction and a diminishing of critical thought as an experiential norm when confronted with stressful combat scenarios.

The phenomenon may be thought of as the physiology of the ‘ancient brain’ responding autonomically to a threat–such as the roar of the lion.  When in ‘fight or flight’ mode, the cerebral cortex of the human brain, where reason & discretion reside, is subjugated to the body’s quick responses to threat.  The habitual, induced entry into this adrenaline-charged state by young Americans listening to loud music while playing “Shoot or Die” video games or inhabiting the loud environment of combat, causes them to become much more deeply & emotionally affected by their experience and more strongly addicted to the adrenaline they produce.  It is a Pavlovian conditioning response that must contribute to reflexive ‘Trigger Time’ behaviors.

This acquired propensity for reflexive trigger behavior is further exacerbated by the reality that often the type of warfare our young soldiers are now fighting amounts to urban police work, including surprise forced entries & clearing buildings with the expectation of real threats on each occasion.  But these threat scenarios have very few analogous counterparts in US civil society and so become exactly the situations which put citizens at most risk from police with military combat experience and a reflexive, culturally & empirically incubated expectation of the need to shoot to achieve “Summary Resolution”.

Proxy Families & Posse Mentality

The physiological, psychological & cultural ‘normalization’ of “Summary Resolution Violence” goes untempered by ethics, morality or religiosity in those young Americans who are the products of flawed socialization resulting in broken families.  Currently, the nation suffers an approximate 40% divorce rate.  If it is tough to consistently nurture & mold young people in a traditional two parent home, it is doubly hard in the fractured experience of a family disintegration.  Absent an emotionally centered feeling of personal worth and the prospect of a continuing, improving future as products of stable family socialization, a certain fatalism sets in, nurtured again by thousands of death rehearsals during gaming.

When you are not planning to be around long, it can be quite liberating.  Death’s Head tattoos, body piercings, why not?  Celebrate death–life is nasty, brutish & short.  No need to worry about how tattoos may appear several decades hence–not going to be around to care.

With the sanctity of one’s own existence thus diminished in one’s eye, it’s just an easy extrapolation to regard the life & rights of others with similar indifference.

Additionally, after two generations of video game usage, even in unbroken homes–where “Shoot or Die” indoctrinated parents model participation in these video games & media for their participating children–there is an additional flawed socialization that confirms the “Summary Resolution” norms of violence.

Also, enlisted personnel, who do the overwhelming majority of our fighting in wartime, are young Americans who do not immediately continue their education after high school–generally either for reasons of aptitude or economics.  The scholastic & financial consequences for young people of broken homes in the US have become obvious.

What may not be so obvious is that young Americans–as the products of flawed socialization accompanying these cultural & economic circumstances–default into ‘Proxy Families’ of their own creation with their military contemporaries, in a culture that is necessarily centered around “Summary Resolution Violence”.  Without the lifelong effective counter-balance of a peaceful, loving family experience to buffer their military experience they arrive, after military service, at police precincts possessed of a ‘Posse’ mentality–which is reinforced upon arrival & continuously thereafter by association with their ex-military peers who have preceded them.  In this way, the ‘Us Versus Them’ dynamic of combat experience is transitioned to the squad rooms of police departments across the country along with its precarious “Summary Morality”–deemed necessary in wartime, but which is wholly anathema to a domestic, constitutionally protected society of liberty for a free citizenry.

Further cementing this peer group ‘Proxy Family’ is the constant connectivity of young Americans to their peers by the continuous electronic means of cell phone texting & social media.  The last generation in particular is the first to have fully co-opted these pervasive communication channels for this purpose–experiencing daily and literally minute-by-minute confirmation of their membership status in their peer group.  Again this involves literally tens of thousands of iterations or more of these communications during adolescence and into adulthood.  Already habituated, when they arrive at military service to employ radios & computers in similar fashion during combat and then later on at police forces using squad car radios & computers to stay continuously connected to their peers, it is almost a seamless emphasis on peer group connectivity over first family, then enemy & finally citizenry.  Given this social trajectory one begins to appreciate how it is even conceivable that some of the callous reactions from over-reaching police after recent horrific abuses & excesses could ever breach the air.  “One Two Three…Nothing Wrong With Me.”

Quick Draw Police Culture

The amoral skill set required to successfully execute the “Shoot or Die” scenario that is exactly suited to combat circumstances–but which is totally inconsistent with liberty and public safety in a civil, free & open society–is tacitly encouraged by US armed services in advertising and other cultural outlets.  For example, each year the United States Military Academy at West Point hosts a very large, 2,000 participant, paintball battle CLICK TO PLAY for military & civilians–a dress rehearsal of sorts for live “Summary Resolution Violence” on the battlefield or in police work.

Previous generations of young Americans have always played ‘Army’ or ‘Cowboys & Indians’ but were never exposed to repetitive episodes of “Shoot or Die” conditioning numbering into the tens of thousands or more over their lifetimes, as described above in the experience of the last two generations or in paintball combat scenarios.  Now these are endemic, warlike themes running right through the fabric of our society.

This is new territory, Marshall Dillon!

Encouragement of technical skills similarly pervades modern police forces, which must necessarily require proficiency of their officers.  That is as it should be.  But to appreciate how deeply “Shoot or Die” conditioning has penetrated the psyche of present day policing watch carefully
watch carefully a meeting of now deceased speed shooter Bob Munden & Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sergeant Chris Petko at the LVMPD firearms facility.

Mr. Munden was capable of firing two accurate shots in less than two tenths of second–an incredible feat deemed ‘superhuman’.  Sgt. Petko’s spontaneous reaction to Bob Munden’s exhibition was, “Very impressive.  Bob’s obviously got some extraordinary capabilities.  That is really a very desired pattern to have.”

One would expect other LVMPD officers in attendance at the range that day to have reacted similarly.  Certainly, Bob Munden’s talent was extraordinary, so much so, that it’s equivalent would never likely be encountered in combat, police work in Las Vegas or anywhere else.  But it certainly demonstrated to LVMPD what the upper bound of speed would be in a gun battle–something any officer must thence forward take into account.

Yet, a question arises: What would induce an officer representing a major metropolitan police department–particularly one with such a scrutinized record of police shootings as LVMPD–to even engage in a televised depiction of what amounts to gun slinging?  Please see the Las Vegas Review-Journal article of November 27, 2011 “Analysis:  Many Las Vegas Police Shootings Could Have Been Avoided.”

At a minimum, the event seems emblematic of how profoundly cloistered the psyches of many police are from the concerns of citizens they are sworn to protect and serve.

The Las Vegas gun slinging segment was aired in a episode entitled “Killer Punch” on a History Channel program called “Stan Lee’s Superhumans” on August 12, 2010.  The air date was 33 days after resident Erik Scott had been shot to death while innocently shopping at a Las Vegas area Costco store with his girlfriend on July 10, 2010 by Las Vegas Metro Police officers William Mosher, Joshua Stark & Thomas Mendiola.

Rules Of Engagement – License To Kill

Police departments are increasingly populated by ex-military who in their modern warfare experience have been trained to function as de facto policemen in openly hostile theatres.  Warfare dictates combatants must have the widest possible latitude to defend themselves in hostile battle space.  Command policy generally acknowledges this.

Upon return and transition to civil service in police departments, the rules should change but the ‘ground truth’ of armed conflict does not–to survive you must do it to the other guy before he does it to you.  That lesson is not forgotten for surviving military personnel transitioning to civil police work.  Human nature compels ex-military serving as police to self-preservation.  Realistically, a habituated “Shoot or Die” individual who has experienced further conditioning in that model by warfare, is acting against instinct, training & experience when asked to recede into a less active posture during armed confrontation in a civil event.  It will not be a typical outcome.

The matter is further complicated by civil policy that has shifted toward resembling the military Rules of Engagement the police officer was accustomed to in a wartime theatre.  The assertive tactics of present day policing places the burden of compliance upon ordinary citizens–when mistakenly confronted by the shouted commands of officers meaning to overawe them into submission–as a technique to keep the officers safe in the line of duty.  Courts provide ‘qualified immunity’ to officers who can muster even the slightest justification for wrongful behavior.  Thus police receive further license to behave in ways inconsistent with honoring the rights of citizens over the perceived security needs of the police.  In practice, this is a direct result of diminished Constitutional integrity–especially concerning the 4th Amendment–because of legislation like the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” Act (USA PATRIOT ACT) of 2001, Title VIII.  This law is unconstitutional in many respects & should be repealed as part of a general return to conditions conducive to the Constitutional liberty Americans are entitled to enjoy.

Resetting Police Culture

Meantime, there are measures–coincident to funding curtailment–that will begin to reset police culture.

1.  Police leadership must be held accountable by elected officials for their careers when officers under their charge are involved in the senseless deaths or injuries of citizens.  They must be required to populate their departments with well-adjusted, constitutionally-minded people & train them in techniques for avoidance of lethal confrontation in society–with the goal of protecting at all costs the lives & liberty of citizens first and of police officers specifically second.  Hey, it’s the job!  The legal theory of ‘qualified immunity’ for officers involved in wrongful deaths or injuries of citizens must be abandoned as antithetical to the core value of liberty in our society.  It’s simple human nature: absent consequence, behavior loosens.  Continuing otherwise is accepting elimination of police accountability–already a grave precedent.

2.  Adjust police hiring practices to more thoroughly screen applicants by probing more deeply into family history & cultural points of reference.  This might include interviewing family members and others as well as examining an applicant’s previous and ongoing computer & gaming habits.  Habitual ‘gun battle’ video gaming should be a ‘stop sign’ barring employment.  Those who have served in a combat role in our armed forces must be examined carefully to see whether the nexus of influences described above has impacted or will impact their conduct as police officers.  This in no way should impugn their honorable military service–on the contrary.  The mightiest warrior does not always the best peacekeeper make.  A nation needs both for liberty to endure.

3.  All police personnel should be required, as a condition of employment, to demonstrate ongoing mastery of knowledge of the US Constitution, The Bill of Rights, The Declaration of Independence & George Washington’s Farewell Address To The People Of The United States as the seminal repositories of the liberty Americans recognize as inalienable.  The primacy of liberty as our core societal value is otherwise obscured to police in an insular statutory haze of regulation & policy.

4.  Citizens should participate in any organization, effort or level of government that promotes respect for Constitutional liberty, as a means to encourage a wider social appreciation of the meaning and value of liberty in our society.  This specifically includes holding accountable for their elected positions any officials of jurisdictions that experience misbehavior by their police.

*Phil Brooks is a tenth generation American dating from before his great grandfather’s service in Washington’s Revolutionary Continental Army under the Marquis de La Fayette in the Virginia campaigns of 1781.  A former US Coast Guard search & rescue pilot, he served as the First Coast Guard Director of the National Skeet Shooting Association.  He founded the USCG Skeet Team & was high-scoring shooter.  A retired airline pilot, Brooks has authored legislation & testimony for Congress on matters from aviation safety to US political letters.  His writings have been reprinted in over 130 countries.



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