Changing Cop Culture

By Savanah Mandeville


Hands up don’t shoot I can’t breathe

Black lives matter no justice no peace

I know that we can overcome because I had a dream

A dream we tore this racist broken system apart at the seams

You tweet me my own lyrics tell me to stop

Letting a few bad apples ruin the bunch

Don’t minimize the fight comparing apples to cops

This is about the orchards poisoned roots not loose fruits in a box

Once the soils been spoiled the whole crop’s corrupt

That’s why we need the grassroots working from the ground up

–Kimya Dawson, At the Seams


We learned yesterday that Minnesota charged three more former officers in the death of George Floyd and elevated the charge against Derek Chauvin to second degree murder. 

This is why we protest. This is using our collective voice to bring justice. 

This is just a step though. Maybe we have dealt with four “bad apples,” but like Kimya Dawson’s lyrics say: “this is about the orchard’s poisoned roots.”

The whole system needs to change. There’s no denying that. We have seen the police brutality play out again and again and again on television. We have seen the graphs and the statistics about absent black men from communities of color. We know cops target people of color, particularly black men and boys. The racist culture that permeates police departments across the country is undeniable. And it’s not new. 

“It is important to note that the origins of policing in the United States are intimately interwoven in the country’s history of discrimination against non-White people, particularly toward Black people. From the tracking and kidnapping of enslaved Black people to the regulation of Black movement and the criminalization of Black bodies for the purpose of economic exploitation, police officers have often been the enforcement arm of both explicitly racist and tacitly discriminatory norms and laws.”

Racial Bias and Disparities in Proactive Policing

So many of us are angry. So many of us are grieving. So many of us are weary from saying over and over again: “Something’s gotta change.”

I started thinking about it. How though? How exactly do we solve racism in the police force? Because this is an emergency. 

Yesterday, the Kansas City mayor announced changes to KCPD including creating whistleblower protections within the department and creating a process where outside agencies will investigate use of force complaints and officer-involved shootings.

Whistleblower protections and outside accountability. Ok, good. But does it go far enough?

I wonder this: Why do police forces have higher rates of racism than the general public? Does law enforcement attract a certain type of person? Or does the police force make people become racist? Are people who become cops the “law and order” personality type? The people who see a stark divide between right and wrong, good and bad? The people who like traditional values and conformity? The type of people who take authority seriously and unquestioningly?

Criminologists, psychologists, and other social scientists have compiled studies trying to find a link between personality type and police work. One of the most influential is the 1972 study, The Police Personality: Fact or Fiction by Robert Balch. Balch asks questions like: “Are authoritarian personality types more likely to choose police work as a profession? Are police more or less likely to have authoritarian personality types than the general public? Does being a police officer exacerbate authoritarian impulses?”

Ultimately, the study was inconclusive on the direct link between authoritarian personality types and police officers but did conclude that police forces are notably lacking more liberal-minded people:

“Even if authoritarian personalities do not deliberately seek out police work, a second selective factor may be operating. Liberals simply may not apply for police work. This is a much more parsimonious explanation of police conservatism than the theory of cognitive dissonance. Bayley and Mendelsohn not only found that Denver policemen were considerably more conservative than the general public, but that age was unrelated to political beliefs. If police work really develops a conservative outlook, then the older, more experienced policemen should have been more conservative *than the younger ones. Of course, police selection procedures are geared to weed out unconventional applicants if they do apply. Applicants are subjected to rigorous character investigations, and any finge of radicalism in one’s background may be grounds for disqualification. Even when liberals do become policemen, they are not apt to last on the job. The police force is already a conservative organization when the liberal arrives-he will not find much social support there for his beliefs. Even if he is not ostracized by other policemen; the job itself may be antithetical to his values. The police organization is a paramilitary bureaucracy which rewards conformity and discourages innovation. The liberal will have to enforce many laws he finds personally objectionable, and law itself may be subordinated to order-maintenance. The liberal has three alternatives. He can develop an ‘underlife’ by seeking alternative sources of support for his values and self-esteem. He might, for instance, find a compatible niche in the community relations division. He could also change his belief system, and this is what we might predict from dissonance theory. But if the change is too radical and would require a complete realignment of the self-concept, it may be easier to opt for the third alternative and drop out of the system altogether.” 

So maybe the answer is to reframe police work from an authority role to a community service role. Isn’t that what they’re supposed to be doing? Serving and protecting? If we systematically remove “power over others” and proactive policing strategies and replace them with a “service to others” and a helping mentality, what different types of candidates might then be interested in law enforcement? What if progress and innovation were encouraged?

Bigger than that, we have to change the laws that these individuals are being asked to enforce. If we spent more time empowering and educating wayward youth and less time on punishing them; or if we provided economic safety nets for people who need them, instead of pointing fingers and placing blame; or if we counseled and educated people in correctional facilities instead of locking them in cages and throwing away the key, maybe the entire criminal justice system could be a major player in the progress of society (not a racist cesspool of toxic masculinity creating an institution of modernized slavery that sucks up public resources to lock up nonviolent drug offenders. Deep breath.).  

As a country, the United States is actually one of the most racially tolerant and inclusive counties in the world. We need to change the way we think about law enforcement so our police forces reflect the rest of our culture. 

Basically, we need to get some woke cops.  


Definitely check out Kimya Dawson singing “At The Seams” and read all the lyrics. Powerful stuff.

One thought

  1. You are onto something here: Police personalities, training of police officers. A good starting place to find answers to some of the questions about on-the-job behavior. Apparently you have done some research already on how these things make up how police do their work. But, again, there is a lot of individuality in each officer; not all would behave the same in similar circumstances. How long does a person train to be an officer? What “classes” (topics) are taught and trained? What kind of Team Behavior is in the training? Another consideration is what are the personalities of those who commit crime? Either while out committing crime or while incarcerated? In all the mix of police and criminals, there’s going to be some sociopaths who can look you in the eye with a straight face and expect — and GET — you to believe him/her lying to you. A brother of mine went for an interview to be a guard at a prison. All seemed to go well, until a question was asked, “What would you do if . . . ” and he gave some non-committal answer like, “Well, i GUESS I MIGHT . . . ” meaning he had no Definitive delivery of a reply–too wishy-washy. Any answer, given with authority in his voice, even if “wrong” would be an answer more acceptable than being non-committal. In the eyes of the interviewers, being insecure in giving an answer would leave him liable to being influenced by the prisoner who could gain more authority over him. Rules such as Never giving a prisoner a light for his cigarette are meant for a reason–once you do that, next will come something more the prisoner will want. Until the prisoner rules the guard. You have a good start on finding the change you seek. Better training. Longer training. Training done in small group diverse teams where each team member has to rely on the diversity to bring the whole team to a successful conclusion.

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