Police officers are known to have mainly one job as their priority, to stop and prosecute crimes for the safety of the people. In this process, they also are to provide psychological safety to the people in their communities by making them feel protected and safe in their lives. For hundreds of years, law enforcement has played an essential role in society, to protect the people of each community. In April of 1635, the city of Boston established the first system of law enforcement in the thirteen colonies. This system was called the “night watch” and was served voluntarily by officers on a part-time basis. On September 24, 1789, the United States Congress created the first Federal law enforcement officer, the United States Marshal. Thirteen U.S. Marshals were then appointed by President George Washington. Later, in 1893, the first national police group was formed, the National Chiefs of Police Union, which would later become the International Association of Chiefs of Police. For the first time, police leaders met regularly to share ideas. The law enforcement system has continued to make improvements for hundreds of years for the benefit of the people it serves. This important and crucial profession, however, has drifted into an area of darkness in which it is showered with criticism. Throughout this paper, I will examine why there has been a rise in the debate over excessive force and police brutality in current times. I will emphasize that the negative view of policing is largely influenced by the media, some officers taking advantage of their power, and the general public’s disregard of mental strains on officers. To support my points, I will be using multiple scholarly journals and sites as well as information I collected from an interview with a West Hartford Police Officer that has been working in law enforcement for 20 years.
The media has become a very strong influencing factor on our modern day society. From the newspaper and magazines to facebook and twitter, the media molds the way people think about everything. As we have witnessed very often lately, the aspect of law enforcement that the media has been focused on is that of police brutality and excessive force. “Brutality” is defined as “the quality of being brutal; cruelty; savagery.” To be “excessive” means to “go beyond the usual, necessary, or proper limit or degree; characterized by excess.” Force is “strength or power exerted upon an object; physical coercion; violence.” Although definitions serve as a straightforward meaning, people tend to twist and bend these words to fit in formats more suitable to them. If someone wants to criticize police officers, they may use these words to in support of their claims, however, it is the way the word is used that the public is influenced by. Although most individuals claim to have their own original opinion, they cannot have come to their conclusion without other information and opinions guiding them. We formulate our thoughts by thinking about previous information collected, most often unconsciously.
The public’s perception of victims, criminals, deviants, and law enforcement officials is largely determined by their portrayal in the mass media. Prior research suggests that public knowledge about crime and justice is largely derived from the media. (Roberts and Doob, 1990; Surette, 1998) (Kenneth Dowler, 2003).
A common practice and popular phenomena now is for people to record police interactions, mainly negative, and post the videos on social media. During the interview with Officer Negron, I asked him if in his opinion, media had affected the current views of policing by the public. His response was as follows, “Absolutely a huge impact. A largely negative impact because what they show are the few incidents involving negative police involvement. Rarely do they show anything that reflects positively on policing.” These videos serve to spark a reaction and debate about the specific incident as well as the general problems of excessive force. The issue with most videos, however, is that they capture only the issue people want to see. Most of the time, when watching these videos, they are short and only show a part of the officer’s actions towards the individual they are arresting or attempting to control. The videos fail to document the interaction prior to the recorded issue. It may have been a situation in which the officer was unable to contain the individual due to resistance or the officer was lead to believe that the individual may be putting themselves, the officer, or others in danger. Another very popular form of media that affects the public’s perception of law enforcement is television. Researchers have found that:
Crime portrayed on television is significantly more violent, random, and dangerous than crime in the “real” world. The researchers argue that viewers internalize these images and develop a “mean world view” or a scary image of reality. This view is characterized by “mistrust, cynicism, alienation, and perceptions of higher than average levels of threat of crime in society. (Surette, 1990:8) (Kenneth Dowler, 2003).
There are a multitude of shows depicting law enforcement officers solving crimes such as Bones, Law and Order, CSI, etc. These shows are created for entertainment, meaning that the scenes and stories are created based on what producers know viewers are interested in. Most of these shows incorrectly depict processes and the real life situations handled by officers and investigators. These shows depict gruesome crimes being committed constantly and the officers always able to solve the case. This false representation not only obscures the public’s understanding of the field of law enforcement as a whole, but also forms incorrect thoughts and perceptions. These multimedia representations strongly influence the public’s perception of law enforcement and have sparked the rise in debate over excessive force and police brutality in current times.
ABUSE OF POWER
Any field of work run by human beings will contain those that take advantage of their power. We are not robotic beings that can avoid all mistakes. In the field of law enforcement, some officers do abuse their power. Just as there are CEOs of large companies that steal, there are few officers that do in fact take advantage of their power. For example, in January of 2013, “A judge sentenced Peregrine Financial Group Inc. founder Russ Wasendorf Sr. to 50 years in prison on Thursday for stealing $215 million from investors and concealing his theft for 20 years” (CBS, 2013). When asked if officers do take advantage of their power, Officer Negron said “Probably. Because just like any other profession, police departments are made up of regular people, some of which make questionable decisions.” However, the issue here is that the public focuses on the group of officers making those questionable decisions versus all the other hundreds of officers doing good. Furthermore, the public then jumps to the conclusion that all or most officers are making the same decisions, creating a corrupt system. As I previously mentioned in the media section, the information presented to the public is what molds their perception. If all of the focus is on only the few bad incidents and doesn’t shed light on all of the good, the law enforcement system is torn down.
Another issue is that the public does not contain a full understanding of the process of arresting an individual and that force is allowed if necessary.
In making arrests, maintaining order, and defending life, law enforcement officers are allowed to use whatever force is “reasonably” necessary. The breadth and scope of the use of force is vast—from just the physical presence of the officer…to the use of deadly force. Violations of federal law occur when it can be shown that the force used was willfully “unreasonable” or “excessive.” (U.S. Government, “Color of Law Abuses”)
If the public does not contain a complete understanding of the process, how will they correctly judge each situation? Abuse means “to use wrongly or improperly; misuse. To treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way.” Sometimes, abuse can be identified very clearly, however, there are situations in which it becomes a lot more difficult to detect. When watching videos of negative interactions in the media, the public is quick to identify abuse from an officer. What many fail to detect is the abuse against officers by the public due to the few negative incidents spreading hatred. Although there are officers that may take advantage of their power, it is not solely the officer’s fault. Their actions could be a result of multiple factors such as lack of supervision, improper training, or a lack of justification on the incidents. These issues are part of a much larger picture than just focusing on the officers themselves. If there are many other factors and the public doesn’t take any of them into consideration, how can we place all the blame just on the officers. Human error is unavoidable and we as the people these officers protect must understand that the respect and understanding is not just one way. Our absence of understanding of human error has clouded the perception of law enforcement and has sparked the rise in debate over excessive force and police brutality in current times.
The general public tends to disregard or overlook the possible problems officers could be having or mental strains causing them to act more aggressively. It has been proven by multiple studies of the brain in general as well as studies conducted on police officers that stressful situations affect the way the brain processes information. “46 percent of police officers described their work as extremely stressful or quite stressful (30 percent)” (ACLU, 2015). Almost eighty percent of police officers involved in this study claimed to be involved in a stressful work life. This stress continues to build each and every day through the officers’ demanding work life, physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and the stress of their personal lives. The researchers concluded that ” Long-term cumulative exposure to these general stressors, as well as to the employee’s personally experienced traumas, can result in emotional and behavioral difficulties” (Laurence Miller, 2014). These emotional and behavioral difficulties could be controlled instead of suppressed by officers if therapy sessions were required.
The brain is the most complex part of human beings. There have been years of studies and research conducted and we have yet to come to a complete understanding of how and why every human acts and reacts the way they do. Without a complete understanding of the brain, it is difficult to help each individual completely, but psychologist and therapists are in place to offer assistance. Law enforcement officers undergo a multitude of stressful factors and situations on a regular basis, yet are not required to see a therapist to help alleviate their stress. “The authors recognize the resistance to seek psychological intervention—or, for that matter, any other assistance—because it conveys a stigma that the officer is somehow weak and cannot handle stress.” “It is also sometimes true that executives use “seeing the psych” as a “hammer,” which it should not be” (Laurence Miller, 2014). This stigma is one that affects not only law enforcement officers but individuals in every situation. Officers want to be seen as a strong and reliable to their communities, and if seeking help will ruin that image, they will not go. However, holding all the stress within them may be doing even more harm. During the interview with Officer Negron, I asked if it was mandatory to go to the therapists provided for officers. His answer was, “It is not mandatory unless some type of substance abuse is involved. The frequency of visits would then be determined by the official.” Without a mandated structure for officers, there is no guarantee that they aren’t in need of the assistance. Police officers are exposed to violent deaths, near death incidents, and injuries, leading to highly stressful lives and difficult situations to cope with. Some officers may even suffer from PTSD leading to many problems such as irritability, impaired concentration, and anxiety. If an officer acts out from time to time, we must put ourselves in their position. How would you handle a stressful life like that? Our disregard for the mental strains of officers has clouded the perception of law enforcement and has sparked the rise in debate over excessive force and police brutality in current times.
As I have emphasized throughout my paper, the negative view of policing is largely influenced by the media, some officers taking advantage of their power, and the general public’s disregard of mental strains on officers. In order to better our society’s connection with law enforcement officers, we must try to understand their lives just as much as they do for us. We mustn’t let the media form our opinions and distort our perception. We also must attempt to understand their psychological struggles and the issues they are dealing with, just as any other individual. By putting in mutual respect, we can formulate a trusting bond that will ensure our prosperity as a nation. As officer Negron said “Although scrutiny and negative press have made this profession more difficult and less desirable, it is still filled with men and women that are passionate about serving and protecting their communities.” Humans will always make mistakes, but your mistakes don’t define who you are.