The Psychology Behind Police Brutality

Police Officer
Kali9 / Getty Images 

By Arlin Cuncic 

Have you ever wondered about the psychology behind police brutality? Why is it that some police officers can go their whole careers without ever using excessive force, while others seem to be caught in a cycle of using more force than is required sometimes leading to death? Furthermore, what are the factors that influence a police officer to use excessive force?

These questions and more have been on the minds of many as acts of police brutality seem to be occurring more regularly, and racial tensions over the inequality regarding the victims of police brutality have emerged.

What Is Police Brutality?

Police Brutality

Police brutality refers to the excessive use of force by a police officer against a victim or victims that is deemed to go beyond the level required to sustain life, avoid injury, or control a situation.

While it may seem based on recent events that police brutality is common and prevalent, it is actually the case that police brutality is the exception rather than the norm. Most police officers only use force as a last resort, to protect the lives of others or their own.

Why Police Brutality Occurs

In order to solve the problem of police brutality, it is necessary to understand the underlying factors that lead to it happening in the first place. In fact, there are a number of different factors that may play a role, not all of which have to do with the underlying personality of the officer who engages in the act.

However, each of them can be considered from a psychological standpoint or psychological lens. This helps us to understand how to fix the problem from a psychological view.

Individual-Level Factors

What are the individual-level factors that contribute to police brutality? These can be understood as those that originate from the offending officer. Some examples of individual-level factors are given below.

Personality Traits and Mental Disorders

Personality traits or mental disorders of the offending officer may play a role. For example, officers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from job-related stressors and trauma may have an increased startle response, a tendency toward suspicion, and problems with aggression. These traits can make it more likely that they will overreact and use deadly force when not necessary.

Personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder (APD) may make police officers more likely to engage in excessive use of force or to feel that they do not need to follow the rules.

Personal problems experienced by police officers may increase the likelihood of them engaging in excessive force, such as relationship problems or other stressful life events.

Organizational-Level Factors

What are the organizational-level factors that contribute to police brutality? These can include policies of the police department or the general working environment.

If the police department sets limits for the use of force that leave police officers vulnerable to using their own discretion (in other words, limits that are too vague or lenient), then the likelihood that officers will use excessive force is going to increase.

In addition, if the general working environment of the police department is such that excessive use of force is not punished or reprimanded, then that sends the message to the police force that it’s an acceptable part of their job description.

In other words, the use of force becomes legitimized because everyone does it and nobody says anything about it.

This, despite the fact that if a civilian were to inflict the same level of force on another individual in the same situation, it would be considered to be a violation of the law. Since police officers enforce the law, they may end up feeling as though they are above it when no punishment occurs.

Examples of Police Brutality

In order to understand the problem of police brutality, it is helpful to consider some fo the more prominent examples that have been made into examples in recent times. Below are some of the more well-known cases and issues surrounding them.

Ahmaud Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery was a 25-year-old African American man who was killed while jogging in Glynn County Georgia. Arbery died when he was chased and then fatally shot by Travis McMichael who was accompanied by his father and another person in vehicles. The death of Arbery and problems with the investigation began discussion about the problem of racial profiling and inequality in the United States.1

Breonna Taylor

Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old African American woman who died after being shot in her apartment on March 13th, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her death was the result of a search warrant that was being executed by white police officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department…


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