I know a song
And it isn’t very long
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.
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.