The Militarized Mentality of the Police (Part 2 of 3)

Until thia mentality is addressed, too many civilians only suspected of a crime, or simply in the way, will continue to be bullied, beaten, or worse. America's current focus on this issue will likely limit the instances of brutality and misconduct in the near future.
05/28/2015 02:47 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2016

Coauthored by J. Berkeley Bentley and Arthur Rizer

Over this past weekend, protests in Cleveland were largely peaceful following the acquittal of an officer who shot and killed an unarmed driver and unarmed passenger after a high-speed chase. That chase started when the suspects' car sped past police and backfired, a sound the officers reasonably thought was a gunshot fired at them. That chase ended when Officer Michael Brelo stood on the hood of the stopped car and then fired fifteen shots into two people suspected of firing once toward police and fleeing, neither shooting or even brandishing a weapon at any of the 62 police cars in pursuit -- a scene reminiscent of the car chase in the comedy, The Blues Brothers.

That shooting took place in 2012 and there was little violence during the protests on Saturday. Since then, President Obama has announced that certain military equipment will no longer be supplied to community police forces. Further, just Sunday morning, an officer of the New Orleans Housing Authority's police force was murdered in cold blood while patrolling a construction site in his marked cruiser. With all that, it may seem that the danger to police remains while the problems posed by policing in America are being solved from on high -- and that this important conversation may lose momentum.

The problem of police mentality is not something that can be solved with only the President's words and modified lists of available equipment. Rather, we must all stay engaged in this conversation or change -- meaningful change -- will not happen.

Recent protests like those in Cleveland have not been marked by the overreaction and militaristic response we saw in Ferguson. But this new brand of policing comes only after so much press coverage of and public outcry over their fellow departments' overreactions to protest. The brass was forced to react.

The problems posed by individual officers, though, like those indicted for their treatment of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, aren't problems that are corrected by leadership handing down new marching orders having as much to do with public relations as with public safety. No, the way to effect the change we need is from the bottom-up. To change the "us against them" mentality of too many police today, just who we hire to police our communities must change.

Police hiring practices have a profound impact on how the police operate. Those hiring practices limit the pool of applicants according to prescribed standards. To make the hiring process manageable, there must be a way to sift through applicants before spending time and resources to find the best candidates. So, for example, felons are out, drug users are out, those without high school educations or their GED are out. These only make sense. But the list goes on.

There is also often a cap placed on acceptable IQ scores. So, if an applicant scores too highly on a general intelligence test, his application is automatically dismissed. This practice has come before the courts, including before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2000. That Court concluded that, "Even if unwise, the upper cut was a rational policy instituted to reduce job turnover..."

"Even if unwise," the court found that the police department "could have relied" on the test's accompanying guidelines that suggested that "overqualified candidates may soon become bored with unchallenging work and quit." That theory was refuted by the plaintiff, but it wasn't that theory that was before the court. The court held that the bare minimum due applicants was not violated by the use of such caps. But shouldn't we want -- shouldn't we require -- more than a bare minimum of our police forces?

America's police are given uniforms, badges, guns, and deference by courts and, in most cases, the public. They are put in positions that require people skills, problem solving, and self-restraint. We expect our police officers to be able to handle stressful and even dangerous situations with words, until force is absolutely necessary to protect the lives of the officers or others. In short, we hold our police to a higher standard than the average citizen. Yet, many police departments' hiring practices purposefully limit the pool of applicants to include only those of average intelligence, not too dumb, but also not too smart.

Why aren't we hiring the best of the best, rather than the best of the rest? Reducing turnover seems like a good enough goal to be kept in mind, but not something so important that we should disqualify those whom studies have shown are most likely to best perform any job. One such study specifically recommended that people who score higher on general intelligence tests should be hired for particular types of jobs, including jobs requiring a great deal of problem solving, jobs requiring a high degree of autonomy, jobs requiring significant on-the-job learning, and jobs requiring an employee to learn the job rapidly and adapt equally rapidly to changing circumstances. Each of those reflects the day-to-day experience of a police officer. Yet police departments are arbitrarily dismissing those applicants most capable of performing these functions.

But that we are not hiring the best may not be the worst effect of this hiring practice. No, the worst effect may be that this hiring practice makes it more likely that a small percentage of those chosen to become police officers will take advantage of their positions of authority and bully the public they are supposed to serve.

Those with lower general intelligence scores also tend to have lower emotional intelligence scores. And emotional intelligence has been found to be a key factor in determining who is likely to bully whom. Additionally, people with high emotional intelligence scores tend to exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors than those with low emotional intelligence. So, it seems this hiring practice has the unintended effect of cutting out those with characteristics that make them less likely to bully or to stand by and do nothing when witnessing bullying. It also has the effect of hiring those who are more likely to display aggressive behavior, provoked or not.

What compounds this problem is what so many have been writing about for years: the militarization of police through equipping and training officers to act as soldiers at war. But the militarization of police equipment and tactics only compounds the problem arising from the mentality accepted and reinforced by police departments in hiring only certain types of officers. Police recruitment videos far too often show the "use of force" parts of the job -- the parts that should be considered a last resort for those rightly termed "peace officers." A typical video will have adrenaline pumping music playing while clips of SWAT-attired officers firing assault rifles, kicking in doors, and tackling suspects play on screen.

In an office, bullying might take the form of domineering talk or taking the "best chair" from a victim, for example. On the streets, though, bullying may result in the shooting or beating of a citizen only suspected of a crime. The fact that police departments have acquired so much military-grade weaponry and equipment only makes their high-aggression responses that much more deadly.

It is the mentality shift -- only made easier and more deadly by militarization -- that is the real threat to our civil liberties. As we allow for hyper-aggressive bully cops to be hired and then we equip these bully cops with military-grade equipment, we are at serious risk of having our "men in blue" quietly mission creep from protecting and serving to soldiering.

Obama's new policy does restrict police departments from acquiring such items as tanks and grenade launchers. The mentality that seeks such weapons, however, remains with the departments.

Until that mentality is addressed, too many civilians only suspected of a crime, or simply in the way, will continue to be bullied, beaten, or worse. America's current focus on this issue will likely limit the instances of brutality and misconduct in the near future. But if America's attention wanes, and if the root problem of mentality is not meaningfully addressed, a few individual officers will bully, other officers will stand by and do nothing, and "the police" will remain a hostile force in the communities they are meant to serve.

The final, upcoming article in this series will provide recommendations for how the public can hold elected officials and, thus, police departments accountable in changing the "us against them," militarized mentality all too present in our communities today.