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How the ‘contagion effect’ leads to group use of excessive force by police: Expert

After the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, a look at why police turn to violence.

Five officers have been fired and charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression in the attack. Two deputies and two Memphis Fire Department employees who appeared on the scene after the beating had occurred were also fired.

It comes down to the psychology of policing, said Laurence Miller, a clinical, forensic and police psychologist.

While most police officers are generally “good eggs” — Miller points out that most officers never fire their weapon for the entirety of their career — there is a culture in the police force that rewards loyalty. And that can create a space for mob mentality, use of excessive force, and an act-now-and-worry-about-the-consequences-later attitude.

Miller is the author of over 400 print and online publications dealing with the brain, behavior, criminal justice, law enforcement, traumatic disability and workplace issues. His most recent book, published in 2020, is “The Psychology of Police Deadly Force Encounters,” and he’s currently working on a book that looks at how race factors into instances of police use of force.

Miller, who also regularly serves as an independent expert witness in civil and criminal cases, looks at what is going on in the minds of police officers when they use excessive force, how mob mentality may sometimes play a role, and the profile of an officer likely to use excessive force.

The text has been edited for length and clarity.

The downside is that, if the officers have to use physical restraint, there can be a contagion effect where one or more officers’ escalating level of force heightens the force used by the other officers and so on.

A fair number of cops have been killed precisely for the reason that they let their guard down, and every officer knows that a cordial interaction can turn deadly in a split second. So, in a group situation, no one wants to be the cop that said, “Relax, guys,” and then the suspect jumps up and injures or kills a fellow officer. Still, an explanation is not an excuse, and we expect our officers to use their skills and training to act competently and lawfully.

The downside is that, if the officers have to use physical restraint, there can be a contagion effect where one or more officers’ escalating level of force heightens the force used by the other officers and so on.

Laurence Miller, clinical, forensic and police psychologist

That’s why when a police officer pulls you over for rolling a stop sign, and they’re sort of looking around, they’re looking in your car, they’re not trying to, you know, play TV cop. They know there could be danger. But all that said, that’s not an excuse for excessive force.

I’ve heard cops say, have your day in court, sue me if you think I did something wrong. But if I tell you to do something, or if I see a hand move, I don’t know if that hand is going to kill me.

Another factor: when officers are part of a special unit. A lot of these guys I work with are dedicated professionals. But a few of them get this kind of attitude that says, “We can pretty much do what we want.”

Here’s an example: You are a police officer with a 6-foot-7, 350-pound guy running at you with an ax saying I’m going to kill you. And you’ve got a second or two to decide what to do. And to stop a guy like this might take the gunshots of three or four police officers. So, the officer or officers shoot him and he dies. Was that excessive force? No. Because you can justify afterward that had you not done that, he would have killed you or someone else — a fellow police officer, a civilian.

Here’s another situation: You have a suspect, who got you all annoyed because he made you chase him. You catch up with him and you restrain him so that he is no longer a danger. And maybe because he was a real a-hole, you flick him in the head with your finger. He might barely feel it but that is considered excessive force. Why? Because it wasn’t necessary.

When you make an officer chase you, you’re heightening the danger to them and others and that naturally increases their vigilance and agitation, which in turn, heightens the risk of an overly forceful response when they catch up with you. That said, however, it is still the officer’s responsibility to be the professional. The job of the police is to arrest suspects and turn them over to the justice system — not to administer gratuitous punishment.

Once that person is not presenting a danger, then any gratuitous injury to that person, even mild, is excessive force. The “we’re gonna beat the shit out of you because we can” is the most egregious part of this case and previous cases such as Rodney King.

They were beating this guy for I don’t know how many minutes. They were yelling at him. They were screaming at him — that part is going to be difficult to justify. But to be clear, these cases are rarely simple, and for the Nichols case, I don’t have any special access to information.

There is empirical research, what’s called shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, where an image of a person with a white face or Black face is holding a gun or holding a phone and you see how quickly they either push a button for shoot or don’t shoot a facsimile of a gun. And no surprise, that for most white subjects, if the harmless object, like a phone or a shoe, or soda can, is paired with a Black face, they mistakenly shoot the person with a Black face more than the white face, so it’s something built into the culture.

But the police have their reality too: If you’re a police officer, you are proportionally more likely to be killed by a young Black male than by any other demographic group member. There can be no justice and no peace until each side respects each other’s reality and learns to work together to find realistic solutions.

And that’s good because making incidents transparent helps us all learn how to prevent them. When there is a plane crash, for example, it is mandated that the incident be ripped apart and debriefed and clicked over, because we want to know everything that went wrong ... Whether or not, you know, a drop of coffee spilled on some equipment in the cockpit, or there was a mechanical thing, precisely because the transportation industry has a stake in preventing accidents.

If we really took a look at what happened with these police officers, if there were policies in place that said, OK, after a trial, lift the veil of secrecy and it can’t be used unfairly used against anyone — that’s how we’ll learn how this happens.

Many officers have this dictum that I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried out by six. Or even worse than me dying, me hesitating, and my fellow cop getting killed. That is probably the worst purgatory any police officer could ever deal with.

If it wasn’t a split-second decision to save someone’s life — if instead, the action appears to involve the use of violence for gratuitous punishment — think Freddie Gray, George Floyd, Rodney King, Tyre Nichols — then that may be a clear case of excessive force.

But then again, if they’re in a situation — even if Officer X has instigated it unnecessarily — they got to back up their fellow officer. And often these things escalate. Most cops are not saints; they’re not paragons of civic virtue. But they’re also not mostly criminals in uniform, either. They’re mostly regular people doing what is arguably a very difficult, sometimes almost impossible, job.

In my work, I’ve met a fair number of bad cops, I’ve met a lot of very good cops. Most of them are sort of in the middle. They’re just people that strive to act professionally and do their job with honor. They want to protect us, and they want to go home safely to their families.

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