Updated: Jul 19, 2020
On Monday, May 25th, 2020, Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, with the assistance of three other officers, knelt on George Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes while his hands were handcuffed behind his back. The four police officers helped pin an uncombative and helpless Floyd down on the street’s asphalt without letting up. Video footage of the incident shows that Floyd was not resisting while in police custody, but he did repeatedly cry out that he could not breathe. Floyd ended up dying right there on the street as he called out for his mother.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, both peaceful protests and violent riots have erupted in major cities across the United States and the world, including the home of the Global Center for Religious Research (GCRR) in Denver, CO. And as though reading from a prewritten script, some politicians and Americans begin regurgitating the same tired cliché: “Don’t blame all police officers for the actions of a few bad apples.”
The problem is . . .
this is not just a few bad apples. It is a chronic, systemic, and widespread problem among police agencies, big and small.
The Myth of a Few Bad Apples
I am a former police officer and a former Baptist minister. My wife is a police officer and a former world missionary to Africa and South America. I can tell you that the problem we are experiencing with law enforcement is not the result of a few bad apples.
As a devout missionary and later a 911 dispatcher, my (soon-to-be) ex-wife was the most beautiful and compassionate woman ever. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to support you. She was also a strong social justice advocate, which is why I encouraged her to pursue a career in law enforcement. I believed she was the kind of person who could change policing culture for the better. But that’s not actually what happens to “good” people when they become police officers. The training and culture of law enforcement often turns otherwise “good” people into pragmatic sociopaths who lack any and all empathy for everyone else.
And that’s the thing the general public doesn't realize about law enforcement culture. It is all-consuming. Being a cop becomes your very identity, and it supersedes everything that used to be important to you. Your family, your values, and your sense of right and wrong all take a backseat to the exhilarating world of policing. Your fellow cops end up becoming your real family. Supporting and protecting your fellow cops become your primary goal in life. And the use of “might” often equates to what is “right” as you do whatever is needed to get the job done quickly and safely. That is, get the job done safely for you and your fellow officers. To hell with everyone else.
This is why even black police officers engage in discriminatory and aggressive behavior toward the public. For law enforcement, there is no black, brown, or white. There is only blue and non-blue. That's why I ended up losing my wife to this law enforcement culture. I lost her to the brutalizing narrative that “blue lives matter [and to hell with everyone else].”
Yes, I know. I’m sure you have a family member or a friend who is in law enforcement, and they’re one of the “good guys.” I thought the same thing about the people in my life. But how sure are you that they’re not actually contributing to a culture of contempt for the public? There is no doubt that Derek Chauvin was considered one of the good guys by his friends and family, as well . . . until he was caught on video displaying a total lack of empathy for another human being’s life. But that’s a common feature of sociopaths (as opposed to born psychopaths). In many situations, these individuals are decent people to their friends and family. But most cops only have other cops as friends. And this is also why almost 100% of all police officers end up divorcing their spouses and then, for many, remarry another first responder. Yet, despite having a good reputation with their close associates, when placed in other environments, these same "good guys" become authoritarian, selfish, and aggressive. They are quite literally trained to eradicate empathy for the general public when on the job.
And it is this lack of empathy that is the real problem in American policing.
I became a police officer two weeks after I graduated from college, and I served both in street patrol and corrections at a time when people did not have smart phones or handheld video recording devices. And law enforcement certainly did not wear body cameras at the time. Having worked at a large police department, what I witnessed from day one of the police academy to my last day on patrol was shocking. I personally witnessed the policing culture dehumanize and vilify the public. What we keep seeing videotaped is nothing new. I witnessed it every week on the job. The racism, the violence, and the belligerent tactics among law enforcement are not becoming worse; they’re just now being caught on camera.
What we learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment
What we saw with George Floyd is not a fluke, and that’s because the police are trained and encouraged to eliminate empathy for other human beings. They are trained to engage the public in an aggressive manner with no concern for how non-blue persons think or feel in a given situation. It is not that the police are sadists who enjoy inflicting pain on others. Rather, they're just desensitized and apathetic to your suffering.
Sure, the police are required to take courses in victim advocacy, and many have training in negotiations and deescalation tactics. Each police department and sheriff’s office loves to remind its personnel, “Treat the public the same way you would want your mother treated.” But nobody ever took these trite sayings seriously. How could they? You're not a friend or family member. Law enforcement are given far more training and practice in the very skills needed to be aggressive toward (and to kill) American citizens than they are trained in how to show (and actually feel) compassion and empathy for others.
What we have is a police culture that suppresses genuine sensitivity for other human beings (which makes sense to an extent; the police can’t be too concerned with the feelings of a murderer when taking them into custody). Both their training and their department operating procedures demand that they activate sociopathic traits while on the job, such as overstepping social boundaries, aggressive behavior, quelling feelings of guilt or remorse, and deceiving others (yes, the police are trained and encouraged to lie to the public on a regular basis). The people you think are "good guys" at church on Sunday morning likely turn into pragmatic sociopaths when they put on the uniform.
What we learned from the now (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment is that when placed in a position of power and authority over others, and in an environment where leadership (be it corporals, sergeants, commanders, or chiefs of police) look down on segments of our society, then everyday “good” people will quickly turn antisocial and sociopathic. There develops an immediate us-versus-them mentality that completely disassociates the so-called “good guy” from having any compassion for the so-called “bad guy.” Whether it's from within a patrol car or outside a jail cell, law enforcement instinctively fall into the psychological trap of believing they are at war with the very people under their care. And this is a problem that we in the public help to promote. We as a society immediately associate law enforcement with being heroes who serve and protect. But most cops are not thinking this way, and most know better than to think of themselves as heroes.
Simply putting on a uniform with an American flag or a badge does not make you a good guy or a hero. But it does potentially make you a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.
I personally watched as police officers inflicted unnecessary pain and torture on people just because they viewed "the other" as the enemy. Usually, these moments of “street justice” go unnoticed because they’re done under the cloak of other activities. They put the handcuffs on a little too tight. They twist people's wrists the wrong way as they walk them to the patrol car. They jab people with their elbows as they’re buckling them in. They slam the car door on people’s legs. Or, as President Trump has encouraged, they slam people’s heads into the car while placing them in the backseat.
If police are caught doing these things, then they simply articulate it in their police reports as “pain compliance” or some other justification. I was repeatedly told that it doesn’t matter what you do on the street; it’s how you articulate it in your police report. As long as you can justify your actions as necessary for “officer safety," then your actions were considered legitimate and imperative. What I quickly learned was that many police officers were simply bullies who should have been weeded out during the hiring process.
Most cops do not think of themselves as public servants; they’re simply (and selfishly) thinking only of themselves and their fellow cops. They are impulsive, and they are trained to make snap judgments wherever they go. They have a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. And scariest of all, they are explicitly trained to rationalize their hasty decisions. They will purposely distort their recollections of events, change narratives, adjust or manipulate evidence, gaslight victims, and distort perceptions all for the sake of making themselves look good to the court systems. They do this at home and on the job; just ask their former spouses who used to live with this behavior.
Don’t believe me? See if you can find a single police report that identifies officers doing something wrong or inappropriate, as well as a police report where the accused are portrayed as upstanding citizens. Why do these reports always make it sound like the perpetrator is a horrible villain who needed immediate suppression? Because that's the point of a police report; it is meant to elevate the officer's “good guy” status while demonizing the people being arrested or charged with a crime. It's to put on a good show for a potential judge and jury so that no one questions the officer's judgment. The troubling fact is that I routinely watched officers falsify police reports by embellishing a person's supposed "aggressive" or "criminal" activity, minimizing the officer's culpability in escalating tensions, or flat-out altering a fellow officer's supplemental report to ensure their stories match up. This practice of lying is so well-known that it is actually termed "testilying" where the police offer up substantive misstatements of fact in order to justify their actions and make others look guilty. Just about every ex-spouse of a police officer has experienced the habitual lying and distorting of facts so that they come out of every argument looking innocent and faultless. It becomes so second nature to misrepresent past statements and past conflicts that spouses are often heartbroken as they watch their loved one become increasingly duplicitous and unscrupulous within their own family unit. Think about it. Have you ever really met a humble cop who admits when he or she is wrong? They're pretty rare, aren't they?
No one knows how to game the system better than a cop. And what this simply transforms into is sociopathic authoritarianism.
The Sheepdog Mythos
The police are trained not to view the public as human beings; they are trained to view the public as a potential threat to themselves and to others.
One of the most common narratives circulating among law enforcement is the belief (the mythos) that the world is divided into three groups:
And the Sheepdogs
The story goes that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys. The sheep go about their business just trying to live their lives, but wolves come in and prey on the sheep. Thus, the world needs sheepdogs to keep wolves at bay and to prevent the sheep from getting out of line. But the thing about sheepdogs is that they have more in common with the wolves than with the sheep they’re protecting. Thus, a good sheepdog knows that it must often growl and even bite the sheep in order to protect them from the wolves (and from each other).
Of course, the sheep are us, the public, who need protection and help from being eaten by the big bad wolves. But stop and think about what is being said here. Cops view us humans as mindless sheep, as idiots who need their help and guidance. And those same cops believe it is okay to growl and bite in order to protect us. Now granted, too many people in society are, in fact, mindless sheep for sure. And yes, there exist wolves just waiting to prey on people. But we’re not all sheep, and we’re definitely not all wolves. Not surprisingly, cops (and, to a greater extent, the military) believe they are the “good guy” sheepdogs. But what these officers forget is that sheepdogs are also just dumb animals who have been conditioned to divide everything into a naive, dichotomistic world without the complexity and nuance needed for exercising proper authority. And sadly, police training does not usually come with a course in critical thinking or the philosophy of ethics, so they'll never really escape this black-and-white thinking.
Without their training, sheepdogs would be just as mindless as the sheep and just as vicious as the wolves. Indeed, as any sheep farmer will tell you, sheepdogs routinely become overzealous and maim or kill the sheep under their care. And like all animals, sheepdogs are prone to regressing back to their primitive wolf-like state, meaning those same “good guy” officers can and do exhibit the same impulsivity and violence as wolves. Only now, these dumb sheepdogs have body armor, guns, and tanks.
What this simply means is that cops often think of themselves as a superior class within society who know the true state of reality and are in a position to differentiate wolves from sheep. They are perpetually the good guys who are allowed to act like wolves in certain situations because they supposedly know better than the rest of us. They are always right, and everyone else is always wrong. They are the good guys; and if you challenge their authority or their perception of the world, then you must be the bad guy. The problem is that these dichotomistic sheepdogs don't have the proper training or education to know just how ignorant it is to view people this way.
And it doesn’t take much to realize just how dangerous this can become for the public. Unless you’re an animal activist, most people don’t have too much empathy for dumb sheep. They’re not concerned with the feelings and the pain inflicted on them when they’re used in medical experiments or turned into mutton or their carcass skin transformed into leather. Viewing the general public as sheep means detaching yourself from the feelings and concerns of that public. It means abandoning empathy for the utilitarian purposes of getting a job done, and they’ll growl and bite when they think it's justified. But dumb, dichotomistic sheepdogs can’t always contain their animal impulse to ignore warnings (like sheep) and prey on others (like wolves).
The Link to Religious Clergy
What can be equally disturbing is the fourth class of society that is implied in this sheepdog mythos. When viewing themselves as sheepdogs, many (if not most) police officers also believe in an invisible, omniscient, and vengeful Shepherd. Being staunchly conservative politically, it is likely that most law enforcement also hold to a conservative theopolitical view of the Christian God, meaning they believe the world is run by a deity that has engaged in holy wars, slaughtered millions of sheep (both figuratively and literally), and even had the brazenness to torture and murder his own son . . . all for the sake of getting a job done (i.e. accomplishing some divine plan).
So this, then, forces us to ask: Why would sheepdogs act any better than their own Shepherd? If police officers believe that violence, torture, and even murder accomplishes God’s will, why is it surprising when they behave in exactly this same manner from time to time?
As mentioned above, I also used to be a Baptist minister and my ex-wife a former missionary, and we used to say the same thing whenever we would hear about another clergy member molesting a child, “Don’t blame all pastors for the actions of a few bad apples.”
Well, sadly, my experience in this profession has shown that the same culture of domination and superiority exists among pastors just as much as it does for police officers. And sadly, the idea that clergy abuse is the result of a few bad apples is also horribly misguided.
In 2019, an explosive investigation into church sex assaults by the San-Antonio Express and the Houston Chronicle reveal that since 1998, over 700 SBC church members have been sexually victimized by almost 400 SBC pastors, youth leaders, and teachers. Almost three dozen of those pastors and educators retained their positions of power in SBC churches while nothing was reported to law enforcement or their congregations. That’s not a few bad apples.
A Pennsylvania grand jury in August of 2018 found there were more than 300 predatory Catholic priests in their state, who had victimized over 1,000 children as far back as 1947. The Pennsylvania report reveals a startling attempt by the Catholic Church to conceal and cover up these sex assaults in an attempt to hide the victims and protect the predators. Soon afterwards, the Attorney General of Illinois released a report exposing 690 priests in their state, who have had credible sex assault allegations leveled against them. Sadly, the Catholic Church claimed there were only 185. That’s not a few bad apples.
Since these two reports have come forward, numerous other states have begun investigating sexual abuse cover-ups, including the following: Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Something tells me that these reports will expose more than just a few bad apples, as well.
What happens when a group of people not only divide the world into black-and-white categories of sheep and wolves, but they also begin to confuse themselves with the very Shepherd who controls the moral guidance of the sheepdogs (or at least believe they know and commune with that Shepherd better than anybody else)? The result is a feeling of superiority over others, which in turn creates the rationalizations needed to bend (or place yourself above) the law.
One of the points of this post is that both law enforcement and religious ministry do become petri dishes for assaulting others specifically because they lend themselves to growing a class of sociopathic people who think they’re superior to everyone else. It isn’t just a few bad apples. No, the entire batch of police culture is rotten specifically because of its view of the public and of themselves.
It’s time we stop rationalizing police brutality as being the fault of only a couple of misfits. It’s not. It is an institutionalized and pervasive method of conditioning police officers to eliminate empathy and to view the public as a threat . . . even when that public clearly is not.