Friday, September 19, 2014

Primate Passion vs. Law and Order

© Charles D. Hayes

Futurist John Naisbitt once equated high tech with high touch. These days high touch is eclipsed by high surveillance. Not only has video technology made us much more aware of police brutality and the use of excessive force, it also offers us the security of policing the police and witnessing disputed situations on behalf of the police.

To put law enforcement in perspective, we first have to have a better understanding of our human behavioral predispositions and the troublesome clash that arises when duty puts peace officers at odds with their biological inclinations. We also have to take into account the self-protective organizational hierarchies law enforcement officers belong to that circle the wagons when there are complaints about police behavior. I’ve experienced both firsthand.

When the name Rodney King comes up, most people who were adults in 1991 have images of a man lying on the ground being beaten by police officers. Then there was the confrontation with Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department, which garnered national attention in 2009, when the professor was arrested as a result of having been reported as a suspicious person at his own residence.

Fast forward to more recent times, and it’s hard to forget the video of a California highway patrolman sitting on top of a woman while he pummels her face with his fists. In another situation, we watched a police officer walking in front of a row of people seated calmly on the ground in handcuffs as he pepper sprays them like someone applying garden fertilizer. And now we have the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rioting that followed.

What is happening when we witness an officer beating on someone who is clearly no longer resisting is that emotion has taken over and the incident is running on instincts being driven by hormones. Thoughtfulness and control at this point have been overridden by biological impulse, and when more than one police officer is involved, they begin to take their cues from one another as the emotion takes on a life of its own.

Biology makes clear that we human beings are primates, and without sufficient self-awareness of this fact or open acknowledgment of its reality, we can be depended upon to act instinctively in ways very similar to our simian cousins.     

All primates are subconsciously hyperaware of hierarchy and dominance. We may not dwell on these things consciously, but we sense intuitively who is and is not dominant in all social situations. This is easily demonstrable by randomly examining body language in group settings. And, as Erich Fromm observed many years ago, it’s when we deny our animal nature that it can manifest in its worst forms.

Between our ears is a virtual bias-generating machine that works 24/7 to protect us from harm and surprise. It pays careful attention to our sense of identity and the dynamics of our in-group-out-group relationships. Our gray matter notices most everything, and it makes big assumptions on scant observations, keeping meticulous records beneath our awareness. Claiming that one is not biased is to deny one’s brain its fundamental function. Bias is what we rely on to confirm the perceptions we live by. The form of bias in need of remedy is an assumed prejudice that has congealed into a stereotype and is socially harmful to others.

Our subconscious is home to a vast repository of learned assumptions based on clichéd evidence. When occasions arise that trigger them, we intuit the associated biased emotions as representing straight-up reality. The result is known as confirmation bias.     

Asking people if they are racially prejudiced is a senseless thing to do, since our conscious selves don’t have direct intellectual access to the enormous emotional database in our subconscious. Not many people will admit to being racist, but statistics prove without a shadow of a doubt that racism is still very much alive in the present.

By any objective standards, our demographics show that the American criminal justice system’s egregiously disproportional harsh treatment of minorities is a national disgrace. As such it makes a mockery of our country’s founding principles about being born equal. If you have the slightest doubt about the veracity of this statement, read Michelle Alexander’s stunning exposé The New Jim Crow.

Overcoming racial bias is an incredibly difficult thing to do because the emotional coding that establishes racial bias takes place beneath our conscious awareness. For law enforcement officers, overcoming racial bias is an extraordinary challenge that requires constant mindfulness, continuous effort, introspection, counseling, and resolute supervision.

It’s critical to understand that when officers work in neighborhoods with large ethnic minority populations, the fact that their interactions with the residents are often negative will reinforce whatever prejudice they have already learned or will set the stage for implanting prejudice in the future. Thus, the seeds for racial profiling are sown in a rich mixture of emotional experience that in time will set up like concrete.

This is not rocket science, but it may as well be because we’re not benefitting as we should from knowledge gained through unrelenting research in neuroscience, human psychology, primatology, and anthropology. We like to consider ourselves to be far above behaving with animalistic inclinations, and so we prefer to ignore any reminders that we have them. But by no stretch of the imagination are we exempt from primate behavior, and we pay a heavy price for not facing the truth. 

We are territorial and tribalistic creatures. We take things like home, country, personal space, and group identity very seriously. And to be able to adapt to all of the behavioral situations we are likely to encounter, our inherent physiological processes enable us to gear up and rise to the social occasions we find before us.

When our primate cousins encounter social hierarchy, their hormones adjust accordingly. So do ours. For example, when a low-ranking male ape suddenly finds himself in an alpha male role, his levels of testosterone will shoot up accordingly. Put a uniform, a badge, and a gun on a man or a woman, and precisely the same thing happens. I know this is true from personal experience and extensive observation.

When police officers and citizens come together, a brain chemical reaction occurs in all present. Those who view the officer as someone to trust are likely to experience increased levels of oxytocin—sometimes called the moral molecule. Those who see the officer as a threat will experience an increase in adrenaline and a spike of testosterone.

As primates we are wired for the potential of conflict escalation, and because of repeated exposure to extreme social situations, police officers are apt to suffer the consequences of their wiring working all too well. In my view, it is not an exaggeration to say that law enforcement officers are chemically conditioned to turn on their internal aggression switch and get an instant response. But the very fact that our hormones can induce behavior ranging from subservience to alpha-dominance, according to circumstance, suggests we can also be flexible and therefore trainable.

Police officers’ duties require them to be assertive, and they become accustomed to surging levels of adrenaline and higher than normal levels of testosterone. When incidents occur that call on them to rise to the occasion, thus causing elevated hormone levels, the result can be an automatic stance of privilege. This sense of entitlement can easily become corrosive—an alpha male or female feeling that dominance is always one’s prerogative by nature of one’s identity. It’s a kind of situational arrogance that comes after multiple incidents in which one is required to be the dominant individual simply in order to do one’s job as expected.

Put another way, a primate posture works better if one’s authority is so obvious that it will be clear to others from the outset that insubordination will not be tolerated. And thus, the act of appearing dominant is chemically self-reinforcing.

Fortunately there is another side to the brain chemical rewards associated with police work, namely, the ability to derive pleasure from empathy and altruism. The opportunities to experience both are ever-present in law enforcement. In point of fact, these rewards reinforce the stated goal of most law enforcement agencies, which is to protect and serve. This is the reason that some people are drawn to become peace officers and why they can’t imagine ever doing anything else.

Self-assurance and self-confidence is a best-case example of the use of authority in the performance of a policeman’s duties, but for some officers, their positional power begins to manifest as hair-trigger resentment when their orders are not followed immediately or when the actions of others are experienced as acts of disrespect. Especially when an officer’s unconscious bias machine has already imperceptibly identified the person encountered as someone assumed to be of a lower class, someone unworthy of respect, or someone whose insults would seem socially intolerable, an explosive injection of hormones is stimulated simply to regain one’s sense of official superiority.

Before I go any further, let me clarify that it is not my intent here to disparage, discredit, or defame police officers, nor am I defending or excusing abusive behavior on their part because of their biological predisposition. What I hope to show instead is that in many of the situations where police officers find themselves, their instincts are egregiously at odds with what they are expected to do. Without extensive training, disciplined self-awareness, and relentless oversight, they will likely become overly aggressive simply because they are acting in sync with their primate biology.

At the same time, because of the sensitive nature of their duties, we have to hold officers of the law accountable, even when—or especially when—they cross the line from being of service to citizens to abusing citizens, subverting the very reason for their existence. In my view, police officers who manage to control themselves in dire situations and perform their duties as expected are exemplary human beings and should be appreciated as such.

Police work is sometimes described as hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror. Having experienced this feeling many times, I would describe it differently: it’s an endorphin rush that one not only gets used to but very likely learns to crave, seeking the feeling at every opportunity. Four decades have passed since I served as a police officer, and yet I still miss the excitement that occurs at a slot-machine frequency.

In large metropolitan areas emergency calls can be considered a routine part of police work. It seems fair to ask that law enforcement officers and their management be on alert for the possibility that the desire for a rush of adrenaline on the part of people conditioned to seek excitement can bring about an unconscious effort among officers to up the ante of events for the benefit of what amounts to an addictive experience.

In every occupation, we find people who do not belong and whose behavior damages the reputation of their organization. Unfortunately, although the qualification requirements for peace officers are very high, we are not yet experts at weeding out people who don’t have the temperament for police work. 

All hierarchal organizations have a tendency to close ranks with self-protective measures when threated. Law enforcement organizations, by nature of their dangerous and difficult role in society, are bound emotionally in loyalty to one another, and it would be unnatural, even disappointing, if they weren’t.

The dark side of loyalty in law enforcement, however, is where the most dangerous and malfunctioning inclinations of our animalistic behavior come into play. It begins when officers become accustomed to using excessive force with management’s approval or indifference. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko writes, “Cops who rat out other cops tend not to remain cops for very long. Lying and exaggerating in police reports and on the witness stand isn’t just common, it’s routine and expected. It’s a part of the job.” Under these conditions, the cure can be worse than the disease. 
This is when technology can come into play. We know without question that people behave differently when they’re aware someone is watching. Even a happy face on the wall in a break room is likely to increase donations in a voluntary coffee fund.

In some ways, the growing paranoia in America about living in a surveillance society can be justified. But when it comes to law enforcement, justice can’t be blind and still be just if we human beings have a biological predisposition that threatens our impartiality when we are under stress. To achieve objectivity in law enforcement, oversight is a necessity. We have the technology to protect both police officers and citizens, and the expense of doing so pales in comparison to the social anguish that can be avoided.

In every case where police officers have begun to wear cameras, complaints of abuse have dropped dramatically. This happens because officers are not as apt to lose control of their emotions when their actions are being recorded. Likewise, the people they encounter or place under arrest are less inclined to resist, act out, or become belligerent when they are aware that proof of their actions will be documented.

I know from my own experience that there are times when police officers have to act angry even when they’re not, simply to quell a disturbance. Repeated frequently enough, however, this kind of experience can easily lead to increased adrenaline and testosterone conditioning for instantaneous aggression, just as working out with weights increases muscle strength.       

Think of it this way. When actors and actresses perform under the vigilant eye of a movie camera, they learn to bring forth on cue and express the full range of human emotions while being in complete control every step of the way. Surely, with extensive training, we can expect peace officers to play their parts in society and act as we need them to act without losing complete control of their emotions.     

Cameras are not a panacea. Their use requires strict standards and allowances for civil rights and privacy issues. Moreover, tolerance for glitches and blackouts occurring during critical incidents is both unacceptable and intolerable. An electronic eye on one’s shoulder is a constant reminder that justice is the expected objective in every public encounter. Having been a police officer myself, I would have no qualms, whatsoever, about wearing a camera. I would consider it proof of my intentions, and I would feel it was for my protection as well as a public benefit.

Regardless of race, creed, or color, every citizen in this country is due the respect afforded every other citizen. Police organizations have a duty and a moral obligation to protect and serve, and the best way for management to meet that obligation is to serve the public interest as intended with recognition of our basic human tendencies and acceptance of visual and audio scrutiny of actions by police as a way to better protect both the officers and the public.

While this is not rocket science, we should pretend that it’s equally important. Until we do so, we aren’t likely to achieve a truly just society.    

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
My Other Blog