Are all coppers bastards?

I know a song
And it isn’t very long
It goes
All Coppers Are Bastards!

-Traditional protest song

ACAB. It doesn’t mean Always Carry A Bible, which explains why many who have the letters tattooed across their knuckles do not have any religious texts about their person.

Some people hate the police. Really fucking hate the police, usually following a negative experience like a beating, repeated racially motivated stop-and-searches or other violations of human rights. Others mistrust the police thoroughly, feeling as though it might be better not to get the police involved. Many more have a neutral opinion to law enforcement, would call the cops after a mugging but otherwise displaying indifference. Some even love the police. Usually it’s people from the first group who believe that all coppers are bastards.

All of these evaluations of the police, though, are based on anecdote and experience. A good experience with the police will lead to a higher personal evaluation of the police, a bad experience the opposite.

Where does the truth lie? Are all coppers bastards?

It is time to do some science.

The police personality

The first question we need to ask ourselves is, is “being a bastard” a personality trait? There are certainly some kinds of personality which seem obnoxious and unpleasant, such as right-wing authoritarianism or the “dark triad”, a personality type which includes narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Fortunately for us, there’s no evidence to suggest that police tend to be narcissistic, Machiavellian psychopaths or right-wing authoritarians, although there certainly do seem to be some personality traits which are common to police.

The police are subjected to tests in the “interview”, and studying the difference between those who make the cut and those who do not can provide insight into the police personality. In one comparison, it was found that successful applicants to join the police were more dominant, more independent, more intelligent, more masculine and more empathic than the unsuccessful applicants. Presumably, the unsuccessful applicants went on to become bailiffs.

A problem with this method is that those who apply to join the police may well be different to the general population. To better see if there is a “police personality”, it may be prudent to compare police to the non-porcine population. In such comparisons, police emerge as more conservative, “tough-minded” and extraverted than general population norms (matched to the police sample by socio-economic status, the statistical way of describing class). One study compared new recruits, police with less than two years of experience and the general population. Both groups of police were found to be more conservative and authoritarian than the general population, although spending time in the police seemed to lower levels of conservatism and authoritarianism. However, time spent in the police also led to a more intolerant view of immigration and more support for the death penalty: the authors concluded that the police attracts people who are conservative and authoritarian and while training has a temporary “liberalising effect”, service results in greater levels of racial intolerance.

There are several issues with police personality research. Sample sizes in studies are often fairly small, and it is difficult to choose a representative comparison group. Furthermore, it is difficult to tease out whether personality differences are a product of an internal trait or socialisation within the police. Certainly, the shifts in test measurements over time would suggest some effect of being in the police. If all coppers are bastards, it may be a product of their social environment rather than being immutable bastards all along.

Police culture

Several attempts have been made to study the “culture” in which police are socialised: in other words, police norms and what police as a group believe to be acceptable behaviour and beliefs. In synthesising insights from psychology, sociology and anthropology, it appears that police culture values an “us and them” mentality; an ethos which values bravery, autonomy and secrecy; and authoritarianism. Furthermore, there is a strong sense of hierarchy among police: they respect taking orders from their superiors. These cultural aspects may alienate them from the rest of the population, thus enforcing their own social norms.

Testing the affects of police culture is a difficult task: it is tough to investigate something so comprehensive empirically. One study investigated whether police brutality was related to police social norms. This was done by a survey methodology: police officers were asked questions about how severe they thought deviant behaviour such as corruption (in the form of accepting gifts), excessive force and theft to be. They were also asked how serious they believed their peers to think these behaviours. Of the three types of deviant behaviour, corruption was thought to be least serious, while theft was thought more serious than excessive force. The perceived opinions of their peers was an important predictor: police officers who believed their colleagues thought excessive force not serious were significantly more likely to have been complained about by the public. This suggests that the opinions of fellow police is important: in an environment where violence is thought to be acceptable, police may be more violent. A flaw in this study is its self-reported nature. A better test would be to use a network approach and identify whether more violent police socialise more with other violent police.

Culturally, acceptance of the Human Rights Act is low among police. In a qualitative interview study, it was found that since the introduction of the HRA, there has been little raised awareness of human rights. In fact, what the legislation became was a kind of bureaucratic paperwork which is used by officers to justify and legitimise their existing practices: the authors conclude it is used as a way of “protecting officers from criticism and blame”. As police culture values secrecy, this is hardly surprising.

One very important aspect of police culture is that police wear a uniform. A uniform sets the police aside from everyone else: it is hardly normal to wander round in a tit-shaped hat and a high-vis stab-proof vest, after all. This serves to increase isolation of the police from everyone else and may serve to reinforce the culture they have created. The uniform itself produces interesting psychological effects: it can create a strong sense of identity which can lead to negative effects discussed in the next section. The colour of the uniform, trivial as it may seem, also matters. Most police wear dark colours–the Met wear black. The problem with black uniforms is that they lead to aggression. No, really. One study identified a clear link between aggression and sports teams wearing black, which has clear implications for the kind of policing we may see. One wonders, then, whether the high-visibility vests and jaunty powder blue baseball caps we see on the Territorial Support Group in crowd situations are actually a measure to stop them from beating the fuck out of people indiscriminately.

The scary 60s social psychology effects

 The 60s was an interesting decade for psychology: social psychology had taken off, and ethics boards had not yet clamped down on doing really disturbing research. One of the most famous of these is the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this study, twelve participants were randomly allocated the role of prisoners, and another twelve allocated to playing guards. The guards were given khaki uniforms and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. They also wore wooden batons, which they were not allowed to use on the prisoners–they were just props. The prisoners were dressed in smocks and stocking caps to cover their hair. After a mock arrest, the prisoners were interned in the basement of a university building. The guards were instructed they were not allowed to physically harm the prisoners. Everyone was psychologically healthy when the study began.

Despite all of these safeguards, it went to shit pretty quickly. The guards began using psychological methods of torture, removing prisoners’ mattresses, forcing them to repeat their prisoner numbers over and over, refusing to allow prisoners to use the toilet or empty the toilet-bucket, and punishing prisoners with removing their clothes. A prison riot broke out on the second night. After six days, the experiment was called off. Some of the guards expressed disappointment at this: they were enjoying themselves.

This shocking study demonstrates an effect called deindividuation: the loss of a sense of personal identity in a crowd or role-play. In this situation, merely putting on a uniform and being given power led to horrifying instances of sadism. The implications of this for the police are terrifying.

Deindividuation often appears to lead to very negative psychological effects, as demonstrated in a recent Derren Brown experiment, The Gameshow. Derren gave the participants masks and the power to make decisions which would affect another person’s life. By the end of the hour, they had had this random person falsely accused, arrested, kidnapped and run over by a car. I would recommend watching the show: he gives a brilliant account of deindividuation. Of course, Derren Brown being Derren Brown, he is somewhat misleading–he uses another phenomenon on top of deindividuation, and eggs the crowd on. The effect of obedience can have consequences as dire as deindividuation.

Police forces have a hierarchical structure: orders come down from above. At our most wishful thinking, we tend to hope that the police are moral human beings who will disobey the orders given if these orders are horrific. Stanley Milgram believed something similar–that people, after the Second World War, would no longer “just follow orders”. He designed an experiment to test this.

In the Milgram experiment, there was one participant and two stooges. The participant was told they were participating in a memory test. One stooge played their learner, the other was the researcher. Every time the learner got a question wrong, the participant was told to give them an electric shock. Each time, the shock was of a greater voltage. The learner would scream, and eventually go silent. The participants, when they wavered, were prompted to give another electric shock by the researcher.

65% of participants delivered the highest level of electric shock, 450 volts. This was delivered after the learner had gone silent, and was beyond lethal. Our good friend Derren Brown demonstrates the phenomenon with none of his typical misdirection. This is actually how it happens.

The capacity to “just follow orders” is within most of us. When combined with the orders the police may receive, this is frightening.

So, are all coppers bastards?

Some police officers may be lovely people. They might be the nicest person in the world when off-duty. While at work and in their uniform, though, they are unlikely to be on your side. Combine a culture which can legitimise and reinforce violence with racial intolerance and the basic human capacity to become sadistic in a uniform and obey horrific orders, and a terrifying picture emerges. Can we trust a police officer on duty? Probably not. The capacity for being a bastard is in all of us, and the job brings it out in coppers.

15 thoughts on “Are all coppers bastards?”

  1. Consider also (anecdote alert):
    1) the alienating effects of being unable to witness “criminal behaviour” in family & friends: I have known of new officers who forbade partners and housemates to smoke cannabis in their presence (or indeed any evidence of weed smoking).This led, in one case, to the end of a long-term relationship, and in another to the officer’s partner losing a circle of friends.
    2) ingroup-outgroup distinction (managed to squeeze a “science part” in): the practice of referring to the broader population of the world as “civilians” reinforces the “us and them” mentality you describe (aside from the high likelihood of an officer being a straight male WASP) – this “civilian” rhetoric is apparently global, certainly in “Anglo” countries such as USA and Australia.

    1. Very good points, both of them. That cops are isolated socially from normal people, even having a different label for them, can’t help them at all.

      1. The divorce rates among coppers are both the subject of endless in-jokes as well as being real and profoundly depressing to them. “The Job” is alienating in a large number of ways.

  2. As a “copper” – a few comments:
    Beware of describing all coppers as coppers. The Met employs 50,000 people, very few of which are sworn constables. Not all of those are full time – some are part time, some are volunteers. They all work in entirely different teams, differnet systems, different people. And that’s just the Met – there are 43 forces in the UK, all who work with different training and legislation. That’s just the UK. A lot of the studies you’ve cited are based on police rural forces, which work ENTIRELY differently to UK police, let alone the Met.

    Also, the Stanford Prison experiment was terrible, terrible science. He told people to be bastards, and that put them into a spiral of increased bastardisation. As opposed to UK Police, who are constantly told to be nice, sensible people, despite spending all their life being insulted by the entire world. It’s an interesting anecdote, but terrible data.

    Anyway. We’re not all bastards. The police is the anvil on which society beats out its problems.

    1. I don’t think you’ve quite looked into the Stanford Prison experiment, as it wasn’t exactly bad science and certainly wasn’t anecdote. It had IVs and DVs, and took on an observational methodology. At no point were the guards instructed to “act like bastards”: neither group were instructed to act in any particular way. The guards were given a briefing on acceptable and unacceptable force to use.

      It’s also not like such findings have been replicated using different, more solid methodologies, just that the Zimbardo method is the most familiar and most drastic.

      Point taken on different types of coppers.

  3. Good post. One other effect: humans don’t remember the details of stressful situations well (such as whether police or demonstrators were violent first). To ensure convictions under many circumstances, police therefore have to collaborate on evidence, otherwise it would be torn apart in court. This has an alienating effect over time as police start to lie or subtly alter their accounts for what they believe to be good reasons. We’ve all seen videos where police were violent first, then try to get convictions afterwards; of course, this happens a lot when there are no cameras to record it.

    1. Video evidence is incredibly important, I agree. Just yesterday, some acquaintances of mine were cleared in court of assaulting a police officer. video evidence showed it was actually the other way round–the officer had committed the assault, and five other police lied in their statements to cover this up.

  4. I’ve always found the implications of psychological research profoundly depressing. There’s a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (the fount of all wisdom) where Brian says to a Roman soldier: “You don’t have to follow orders”. The soldier replies: “But I like orders.” It doesn’t bode well for an egalitarian, non-hierarchical future.

    1. Relevant note – police constables used to be gifted with a lot of independence and discretion. The ideal of Peelian copper, like Dixon, is one who is capable of making an independant decision. The only issue being, those decisions led to people getting killed, massive public outrage, etc. Thus, it’s far easier to “pass the buck” to the entire policing orgaqnisation by simply following policy.

  5. I think, perhaps, that this is rather missing the point about what the police are there to do – one which is the antithesis of anarchist thought but a cornerstone of most of contemporary society.

    The police are the social heavy mob. They aren’t there to be nice to people, they aren’t (really) there to reassure people, they aren’t there to glue society together or give your family directions around London when they get lost sight-seeing. They are there to enforce social diktat, in the form of laws. If you come into contact with the police, it is either because you are unlucky and been the victim of crime, or because you are on the receiving end of enforcement activity – which involves all sorts of interference with you and your daily business, whether you are actually a criminal, a suspect or just happen to fit the demographic.

    The point is – all crime control activity is ultimately brutalising. It is inherently adversarial between enforcer and enforcee, with the rest of society passing by on the other side, balancing relief that it isn’t happening to them and vengeful gratitude that ‘one of them’ is getting their just desserts. Blaming the police officers for acting like heavies seems rather redundant – they *are* heavies, it’s what society ultimately want them to be, because of what it wants them to do and the very nature of their existence. The two aspects can’t be separated. As Crimsoneer states – ‘The police are the anvil that society beats out its problems’.

    PS – The HRA is a shabby, disgraceful bit of legislation; lip service to real human rights, designed so that the government reserves the right to do anything it wants to you if it feels that circumstances merit it. When you can lock up people for 28 days without charge and the main use of the HRA is for the wealthy and the tabloids to sue each other, is it surprising that pit’s held in contempt?

  6. Ben (or anyone) – This is a genuine question because I am legitimately curious; if you believe the Police to be, intrinsically, a force for bad rather than good (because they are ultimately brutalising and a heavy mob) then what should be done? Without the Police, what other means should we use to provide protection, enforce law and solve crimes?

    I’m not defending bad practices within the police, or suggesting that they are a necessary unpleasantness. In the interests of full disclosure I should say that, examples of individual brutality etc excepted, I believe the Police to be a force for good. When I walk home through town at 3am on a Sunday morning, I’m glad they’re there. When I go on a march or a demo with thousands of others, I am glad they are there. When I see a murderer brought to justice, I am glad they are there. I want them to be better, and I want to be confident that no officer is above the law, but I still want them to exist.

    What’s your solution? I am open to any idea that ensures the safety of the people in this country whilst also respecting the right to protest, the right to go about your business unmolested, the right to be left alone unless you break the law but until I see it proposed I will never believe the Police to be, overall, a force for evil rather than good.

    1. It is an historical question. Government itself exists because of the class antagonisms that exist in society, In our society it is capitals need to continually exploit labour to the point of impoverishment during times of financial crisis. However government does not overcome these antagonisms, it is not a neutral arbitar, it is the enforcer of one class over the other. It is obvious that contemporary government and its institutions of of justice in the courts and police are controlled by finance capital and the police are “the bodies of armed men”, to quote Marx (I think) that the state rely upon to enforce their diktats.

      Again during periods of crisi this becomes evident as peaceful protests are set upon by police because the status quo cannot be maintained democratically as the rich grow richer and the workers are faced wth high unemployed and savage attacks on their living conditions. Protests threaten private property rights of the rich and the status quo itself because there is no way out of major breakdown other than war, which are always over markets and resources, never democracy.

      The historical progression is towards a classless society, which is what was attempted by the Russian Revolution, that was crushed by western invasion (civil war) and then Stalin’s usurption and betrayal of the October revolution, culminating in the mass slaughter of revolutionary socialists in the Moscow frame-ups.

      Police will never be anything other than “bodies of armed men”, not that they are consciously aware of the role they play, they are not.

      The question is whether or not the society that Bolsheviks set but failed to acheive is possible, that is the eradicating of all national borders and the democratic control and ownership by all of the means of production with poduction and distribution of goods and services being carried out to meet the needs of workers, intead of tthe soulless accumulation of profits by the few in what is essentially a ponzi scheme. Under such conditions police and government “wither away” and are unecessary. And we have once again arrived at time in history where this question is once again being posed, as either we once again have war, and the probable destruction of society by nuculear holocaust, or revolution.

      The problem is that a scientific necessity is reduced to a reactionary politics, where things like RWA provide a bulwark against progress.

      This was Einstein’s take on it

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