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Dispatches from Dr. Joel Dvoskin: July 2008

Police Brutality

by Joel A. Dvoskin, Ph.D., ABPP

Diplomate in Forensic Psychology

University of Arizona College of Medicine
Past President, American Psychology-Law Society (APA Division 41)
Past President, Psychologists in Public Service (APA Division 18)

I just watched a video of an apparent assault by a police officer upon a person in custody. [Click here.] On an Internet list serve, someone asked the prevalence of "police brutality." I thought readers of The Zero might be interested in my response:

How prevalent are unjustified police assaults on civilians? The short answer is that nobody knows. I believe that most police officers are professional and well-intended, but it is undeniably true that some police officers misbehave quite badly. The problem is that those few officers who abuse their power have an enormous amount of power to abuse. A second problem is that if a truly evil person were to manage to become a police officer, it would be possible to commit violent crimes without witnesses in a manner that would be very difficult to prove. A third problem is that people make allegations of "police brutality" for a host of self-serving reasons when the police did nothing wrong. A fourth problem is that there are extremists on both sides of this issue, who always accept uncritically any claim of police brutality, or who always accept uncritically a police officer's story about why a suspect arrived at jail with serious injuries. When there are no witnesses, how in the world does one know who struck the first blow? Thus, it would be almost impossible to know how often police officers commit felonious assaults. Because I like and respect such a high percentage of the officers with whom I've worked, I like to think that the percentage is very, very low, but the truth is that I don't know and neither does anyone else. Further, even if it is a tenth of one percent of all police officers, that small cadre of people can do an enormous amount of harm because they have so much power. I have often said that the actions of one bad police officer can undo the good deeds of a hundred good officers.

The video from Memphis, in my opinion, suggests at least the likelihood that two police officers committed a felonious assault, possibly with a deadly weapon (i.e., the handcuffs allegedly wrapped around the officers fist), allegedly exacerbated because it is a "hate crime." I hope and expect that this is being investigated, not only as an administrative question, but as a criminal investigation. It was also reported that the FBI is investigating this act as a possible federal offense, because the officers may have intended to deny this person her civil rights. The officers deserve the presumption of innocence, as do we all, but the investigations should be at least as vigorous as they would be for any other apparently felonious assault. If they are found guilty, I would expect a sentencing judge to take into account the damage that such an act has on the reputations of good police officers in Memphis and everywhere, the importance of a community trusting their police force, and the many dangers inherent in the abuse of police power.

These investigations should not, in my opinion, be influenced by political action committees, police unions, or any other external pressures. They should be competently and fairly conducted. Because of the seriousness of the allegations, I would expect that the evidence would be presented to a Grand Jury, who would decide if a there is enough evidence to bring forth charges. I think it would be a horrendous mistake to make such a decision behind the closed doors of a prosecutor's office, especially if there is a decision not to bring forth charges. It is important for the public to believe that each of us, alleged victims and alleged offenders alike, have rights; this situation calls for transparency.

A fifth problem, in my opinion, is worthy of psychological inquiry. Like many other professions, including psychology and medicine, it is often hard to get police officers to "snitch" on each other. When applied to police, this is sometimes called the "blue wall of silence." This anti-snitch rule, of course, is the "bad guy's best friend." I find it remarkable that our society has largely adopted a value that emanated from the worst of us. Silence in the face of evil is a service only to evil. It is one thing to say, "Don't be a tattle tale," when the consequences are a stolen fresh-baked cookie. It is quite another thing to foster lethal violence, dangerous malpractice, or police misconduct because of a no-snitch rule that was made up by gangsters. So the psychological question is to examine the "wall of silence," and perhaps to identify ways to overcome it.

While the alleged assault itself was extremely distressing, when I read about these allegations, I was in some ways even more concerned about the alleged failure of other peace officers to intervene in the presence of an allegedly felonious assault. If indeed detention officers stood by and watched, they had an undeniable duty to intervene and render the situation safe with the least amount of force necessary. If the officer doing the punching in the video had been defending himself, they had a duty to help him. If the officer was gratuitously attacking a person in custody, they had a duty to stop him. I can't think of any scenario in which doing nothing was appropriate.

As a psychologist, if I were consulted by a police department about how to get officers to report observed misbehavior by other officers, what would I tell them? How would we study the question? To be fair, police officers might ask the same questions of physicians or psychologists or priests. Still, I think these are questions worth asking. What is the best way to get people to report serious misbehavior by their colleagues, especially when they rely on those same colleagues to literally "cover their back" in potentially lethal situations?

Until then, I am thankful for video.

© Copyright 2008 Joel A. Dvoskin

For more information about Dr. Joel A. Dvoskin, or to read more articles by this leading leading forensic psychologist, click here.


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