Most encounters with the police do not involve violence. A U.S. Department of Justice Report measured contact between police and the public in 2018.

Around 61.5 million people had an encounter with the police the year before the survey, but only 2{4f5567200fc2181534eb7e3145b3f57c35ba87efb6a8bc0a0134f40d43328a03} of people experienced threats or use of force.2 However, it’s worth remembering that roughly half of the encounters in this survey were traffic-related incidents, and the report did not include police behavior during protests as a category.

Why Police Brutality Occurs

In order to solve the problem of police brutality, it is necessary to understand the underlying factors that lead to it happening in the first place. In fact, there are a number of different factors that may play a role, not all of which have to do with the underlying personality of the officer who engages in the act.

However, each of them can be considered from a psychological standpoint or psychological lens. This helps us to understand how to fix the problem from a psychological view.

Individual-Level Factors

What are the individual-level factors that contribute to police brutality? These can be understood as those that originate from the offending officer. Some examples of individual-level factors are given below.

Mental Health Issues

The mental health of the offending officer may play a role. A 2019 study found that officers who self-reported engaging in abusive police practices tended to have higher levels of PTSD symptoms.3

It is possible that officers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from job-related stressors and trauma may have an increased startle response, a tendency toward suspicion, and problems with aggression. These traits can make it more likely that they will overreact and use deadly force when not necessary. However, it is also possible that engaging in excessive force results in a sense of profound guilt and moral injury that in turn lead to PTSD symptoms.3

Some researchers theorize that traits of “psychopathy”, also called antisocial personality disorder (APD), may be more prevalent in police officers than the general population. Traits such as “fearless dominance” or “cold-heartedness” can be adaptive in dangerous or emotionally charged situations, but they can also make an individual more likely to engage in excessive use of force or to feel that they do not need to follow the rules.4

That said, research on this theory is limited. It is unlikely that APD, which is very rare, could explain most police brutality cases.

Personal problems experienced by police officers may increase the likelihood of them engaging in excessive force, such as relationship problems or other stressful life events.

Organizational-Level Factors

What are the organizational-level factors that contribute to police brutality? These can include policies of the police department or the general working environment.

If the police department sets limits for the use of force that allows police officers to use their own discretion (in other words, limits that are too vague or lenient), then the likelihood that officers will use excessive force is going to increase.

In addition, if the general working environment of the police department is such that excessive use of force is not punished or reprimanded, then that sends the message to the police force that it’s an acceptable part of their job description.

The Washington Post’s police shootings database shows that police shoot and kill roughly 1,000 people a year in the United States. However, only 110 officers since 2005 have been charged with murder or manslaughter, and only 42 officers have been convicted.5

In other words, the use of force becomes legitimized because everyone does it and nobody says anything about it.

This, despite the fact that if a civilian were to inflict the same level of force on another individual in the same situation, it would be considered to be a violation of the law. Due to qualified immunity, it can be difficult to prosecute officers for misconduct.6

Examples of Police Brutality

In order to understand the problem of police brutality, it is helpful to consider some of the more prominent examples in recent times. Below are some of the more well-known cases and issues surrounding them.

Tyre Nichols

On January 7, 2023, 29-year-old Black man Tyre Nichols was pulled over in Memphis, TN, due to claims of reckless driving.7

The five cops who stopped him, who were also Black, brutally beat him for about three minutes. As a result of his injuries, he died three days later.8

The charges brought against the officers included second-degree murder and kidnapping.8

After body-camera footage was released on January 27th,7 the public was outraged as many deemed it to be one of the most heinous acts of police violence ever witnessed.

Breonna Taylor

Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old Black woman who died after being shot in her apartment on March 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her death was the result of a search warrant that was being executed by white police officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department.

The raid began shortly after midnight. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, thought the officers entering the apartment were intruders and fired a warning shot at them, which hit one officer in the leg. In return, the officers fired 32 shots, leaving Breonna Taylor dead and Walker physically unharmed.

While the City of Louisville agreed to pay $12 million to Taylor’s family, the three police officers involved were not indicted on charges related to Taylor’s death. The incident led to subsequent protests throughout the United States.9

George Floyd

George Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man who died on May 25th, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after being arrested for using a counterfeit $20 bill. During the arrest, former police officer, now convicted murderer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck while Floyd was handcuffed and lying on his face.10

Bystanders who tried to intervene were prevented from doing so by other officers. Prior to his death, George Floyd pleaded for relief, saying that he could not breathe and that he was going to die. The entire incident became public when video footage shot by onlookers was released to the public. Autopsies revealed Floyd died as a result of the actions of the officers, and worldwide protests were sparked by the incident.

While these incidents occurred in 2020, police brutality has been a problem for decades. Below is a list of incidents from 2014, at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement that brought police brutality to the forefront of public discourse.

Dontre Hamilton

On April 30, 2014 Dontre Hamilton was killed after being shot 14 times by a police officer in a Milwaukee park. Local Starbucks employees had called the police for a wellness check after seeing Hamilton sleeping on a park bench. The officer who responded to the call, Christopher Manney, began what would later be described by the Police Chief Edward Flynn as an “inappropriate pat-down.”11

Hamilton woke up and began to struggle. Manney’s defense team would later use Hamilton’s prior diagnosis of schizophrenia to suggest that he was dangerous, but Flynn would later justify his firing of Manney by saying the officer ignored departmental policy and instigated the fight.

Eric Garner

Eric Garner was killed on July 17, 2014 in New York after he was put in an illegal chokehold by a white police officer. Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times while he was held down.12 The officer involved, Daniel Pantaleo, was not charged with a crime. His death sparked protests and “I can’t breathe” as a slogan for protest.

John Crawford III

John Crawford III was killed on August 5, 2014 after being shot by a police officer at a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio.13 He had been holding a pellet gun, which the store had advertised as being on sale, and there was no confrontation. The officers involved were not charged.

These are only some examples of how excessive use of force can lead to death.

Why Racism Can Turn to Violence

Racism refers to bias held against a person or group of people because of their race or ethnicity. Why does racism turn into excessive use of force or violence among police officers? There are several factors to consider.

Prevalence of Deaths Due to Police Brutality

Research has demonstrated that the risk of being killed as a result of the use of excessive force by police in the United States varies by racial and ethnic group membership.14

Specifically, Black men and women, American Indian/Alaska Native men and women, and Latin American men were shown to have a higher lifetime risk of dying due to police violence compared to their White counterparts.

In contrast, Latin American women and Asian/Pacific Islander men and women had a lower lifetime risk of dying due to police violence than White counterparts.

The overall lifetime odds were shown to be 1 in 2,000 for men and 1 in 33,000 for women. Overall, the highest risk was shown for Black men, who faced a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by a police officer over the course of their lifetime.

Racial Profiling

Why are Black men and other minorities at a higher risk for dying due to an excessive use of force by police than their White counterparts? Racial profiling may help to explain this phenomenon.15

Racial profiling refers to assuming guilt based on race or ethnicity, a problem that mostly affects those individuals who have a higher lifetime risk of dying as a result of police brutality.

For example, police officers may use stereotypes when trying to determine the suspects in a crime, or they may perceive persons of certain races (such as Black men) as more aggressive or threatening when faced with a confrontation.

How to Reduce Police Brutality

How can we work to reduce police brutality? There are a number of different steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of this phenomenon from an organizational and psychological standpoint.

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an order to appoint a task force on 21st century policing. The task force developed a list of recommendations such as improving training and education, reducing bias among police officers and departments, introducing and improving crisis intervention training, and promoting cultural sensitivity as well as compassion.16

Implicit Bias Training

Implicit bias training takes the approach that police officers operate with subconscious biases that they may not even be aware of. When these biases are activated, they may handle a situation differently than they would if, for example, a person was White instead of Black or driving a BMW instead of a old beat-up pickup truck.

The premise of this training is to help police officers understand that everyone grows up with subconscious biases, even if someone doesn’t feel like they have any prejudice. The goal is to make police officers aware of their biases so that they can manage them in the moment. This is more effective than calling out police officers as racist, as most officers would not consider themselves to fall into that category. Rather, this approach takes the stance that all officers need training.

The idea behind implicit bias training is that those who are better able to manage their biases will be safer, more effective, and fairer in their role as police officers. However, there have been very few studies on the effectiveness of implicit bias training for police.

Only one 2020 study has looked at impacts on real-world behavior. While implicit bias training seemed to improve officer knowledge of implicit bias concepts and motivation to act without prejudice, the study found that training had little to no effect on racial and ethnic disparities in police enforcement. In other words, implicit bias training alone was not enough to change behavior.17

Improved Hiring Practices

One way to reduce the risk of police brutality is to hire individuals who have a lower risk of becoming violent on the job.

Personality psychology can be helpful in making these decisions, as there are assessments that can be used to predict how individuals will respond to stressful situations as well as predict their behavior when on the job.

The use of personality assessments can also be a way to level the playing field for minorities, as it can be an unbiased way to determine who is the best fit for the job.

Improved Disciplinary & Supervision Measures

Suppose a police officer engages in excessive or deadly force, and there is no punishment. In that case, this sends the message to the rest of the department that the behavior is acceptable.

Instead, adequate supervision to identify police officers acting inappropriately before that behavior gets out of control, as well as disciplinary measures to send the message that the behavior is unacceptable, are necessary to identify and reprimand police officers who are the most likely to use excessive or deadly force.

Using such measures will also deter other officers from acting in the same manner and set the tone for the overall behavioral expectations of police officers in a department.

In other words, police departments should begin to lead by example, and that starts with enforcing the law for police officers in the same way that it would be for civilians.

Provide Mental Health Support for Police Officers

When police officers are better able to manage their emotions under stress, understand which emotions they are experiencing, and communicate well despite being in high-stress situations, they will be better able to de-escalate complex scenarios rather than react by using excessive force.

In other words, there is a tipping point at which excessive force begins to be used, and this tipping point can be dialed backward when police officers receive adequate support for their mental health needs.

Additionally, given the fact that PTSD can be a risk factor for the use of excessive or deadly force, providing swift and adequate support to officers who have experienced trauma on the job seems to be a necessary prerequisite to preventing the use of excessive force.3

This begins by providing adequate funding to support the mental health of police officers, and it also means reducing stigma and encouraging police officers to come forward when they are struggling with their mental health.

As a society in general, mental health is still surrounded by stigma, so it is doubly important that police officers are made to feel that it is acceptable for them to talk about their mental health struggles. Rather than feeling isolated with their trauma, stress, or unmanageable emotions, police officers should be made to feel that they know exactly who to speak to for support and that those supports will be in place and easily accessible when they are most needed.

This also means the police departments should be trained to recognize the symptoms of PTSD so that they can intervene and offer support when an officer may not recognize their own symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Improve Relationships Between Police & Community

To reduce the use of excessive and deadly force, it is important to improve the relationships between the police department and the community, particularly the Black community, as this sector is generally the one most affected by police brutality (and subsequent anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress).18

This could take the form of programs and initiatives that place police officers in the community in a helping or educational role instead of a policing role. It could also mean having the police department work with the community or participate in marches and rallies to show their support and understanding. This was seen taking place when some police departments chose to attend Black Lives Matter protests and marches and kneel in support instead of taking a combative stance.

When police officers and the public begin to see each other as individuals rather than as groups to fear or cast stereotypes upon, real change will begin.

Conduct Research

In addition to the above measures, it is also necessary to continue to conduct research to understand the psychology behind police brutality. Which personality factors are most likely to correlate with excessive use of force? Which mental disorders show the highest correlation with deadly use of force? What forms of training help most to reduce implicit bias and improve the situation?

Ongoing research on these and other topics is the cornerstone of moving forward and improving the situation when it comes to the excessive use of force by police officers and the disproportionate impact that it has on racial minorities.

Defunding Police Departments

What about defunding police departments? This is a tactic that has been brought up as a solution to police brutality.

Defunding the police means taking money away from funding the police department and instead sending those funds to invest in the communities that are struggling the most and where most of the policing occurs.

It’s very much similar to the concept of directing money toward prevention instead of dealing with problems after the fact. While not a simple solution, there is merit in funding programs and communities that are struggling instead of putting more people behind bars.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding the psychology behind police brutality is the first step toward fixing the problem. Unfortunately, the situation is inherently one that needs to be fixed from the top down, beginning with the government systems and how they allocate their funding. When better training and education are in place for police officers, as well as better mental health support, then better outcomes may result.

It’s also worth noting that while this problem seems to be most prominent in the United States, other countries may have their own racial tensions (for example, in Canada and Australia, there is tension between the government and Indigenous people). The United States, however, struggles more than most with using deadly force in the form of gun violence.

Mental health support is available if you or someone you know has been affected by or witnessed police-related violence. Please reach out to a mental health professional. Acts of police brutality are traumatizing, and you deserve care, understanding, and support.