How many abusive police does it take to make the police culture toxic?

In an earlier post on the outrageous levels of police brutality in the US, I said that it was not necessary to paint every police officer as a menace because of all these killings, and that all it took was for as few as 10% of the officers to be sociopaths for these abuses to be a regular feature. I just plucked that 10% figure out of thin air but later got curious about whether that was a reasonable estimate and decided to dig deeper.

Because of the highly local nature of US policing, it is not easy to get a figure for the total number of police officers all over the country but this blog says that “In 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 765,246 full-time police officers in the United States — roughly 251 police per 100,000 residents.” Given that there are about 18,000 police departments, that averages out to over 40 police per department, with a wide range depending on the size of the city.

First off, one police officer for 400 people seems like a lot.

But if my estimate of 10% is correct, that would mean we are talking about 75,000 police officers as possible sociopaths who treat violence and abuse lightly. I am not sure how reasonable that is but even if we made it as low as 1%, that would still give us 7,500 police sociopaths, more than enough to result in abuses on an daily basis somewhere in the country. And if we had even 0.1% who were extreme sociopaths who bordered on sadists, that is still enough to have horrendous abuses occur regularly.

So police departments have to be made to realize that as long as measures are not taken to identify and weed out the sociopaths in their ranks, they will continue to face this problem. That means that police chiefs and mayors will have to confront the leadership of the police unions who often have terrible attitudes on race and the use of force and seek to protect even the worst officers from being fired. For example, 57 officers of the Buffalo police department have resigned from the emergency response team in support of the two officers who were suspended for pushing the 75-year old man Martin Gugino, causing him to fall to the ground and hit his head and start bleeding. The police union chief has defended the two police officers.

As hard as it may be to believe, two of the three other officers who were present at the murder of Floyd were fairly new to this department and were being trained by Chauvin, the one who kept his knee of Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes and ignored his please that he could not breathe. Yes, Chauvin, someone who had had 17 complaints filed against him, was the one chosen by the department as the training officer to show these two how to be a police officer. The mind boggles. Can anyone be surprised why the culture in that department is so toxic?

There have been some small positive movements. Minneapolis has banned the use of chokeholds by police and Seattle has banned the use of tear gas for 30 days. Other places have announced similar measures. These are small steps but as long as sociopathic officers remain on the force, they will continue to poison the culture.

What has enabled the police to ignore calls for reform for so long is that fact that they have historically had a lot of support from the white community and the establishment for whom the protection of their property is their main concern and the lives of poor and minority communities was a distant second. It used to be the case that when there was similar unrest in the past, the media would quickly pivot away from talking about the atrocities that triggered the unrest to tut-tutting about the destruction of property. That has not happened this time, at least not to any significant extent. In the last nine days there have been demonstrations in 380 cities and they have defied curfews. The large number of white people that have taken part in the protests of police actions and the support they have got from even businesses should be a warning to the police that their reservoir of support may be draining away.


  1. Holms says

    Didn’t NYC have a ban on chokeholds before that guy selling cigarettes was choked out? The ban is worthless if it can be ignored without penalty.

  2. says

    Police generally need to understand that policing other cops is part of their job description. We need to encourage understanding of this point by firing the officers who fail to do their job.

  3. Owlmirror says

    Didn’t NYC have a ban on chokeholds before that guy selling cigarettes was choked out?

    The WikiP page for Eric Garner shows that the police department’s defense was to loudly and repeatedly claim that what Garner was placed in was totally not a chokehold.

  4. Marja Erwin says

    I get the impression that ingroup/outgroup dynamics are a big part of the problem. As well as doctrine, training, and the role of police in American capitalism.

    I also get the impression that ingroup/outgroup dynamics are more important when neurotypical empaths are involved than when neurodivergent people are (since we’re used to being outsiders), or where sociopaths are involved (since they aren’t as likely to care).

    Of course there are exceptions like undercover operatives who are working with their police ingroup to join and manipulate and betray another ingroup.

  5. ionopachys says

    I suspect that the only reason the press is sometimes framing the situation as peaceful protests versus violent police is because the cops are bullying some reporters on the street.

  6. robert79 says

    With great power comes great responsibility.

    The police have been given the power to police, to fine, apprehend, use force if needed, in order to make members of society adhere to society’s rules. However, this does not exempt the police from society’s rules! To the contrary I’d expect that the people we empower to enforce these rules are held to greater accountability, not lesser.

    If I cross an empty street at a red light (this happens a lot lately due to reduced traffic in the lockdown), I wouldn’t be surprised if a police officer just gave me a warning instead of a fine. However, I’d fully expect the police officer to wait at the red light, no matter how empty the street is.

    Now killing someone is clearly not comparable to running a red light. But *anytime* someone dies while a police officer is present, it should be treated as more serious than if someone dies in without police present. Witnesses/suspects (including the police officers) should be questioned, separately, and detained if there are serious suspicions in their role (and given access to lawyers, etc…) But additionally, since police officers were present, the investigation should not only focus on “what happened?” and “who did it?” but also on “how could this happen in the presence of the police, whose job is to protect us?” (and by ‘us’ I mean members of society — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the cops.)

    If the police want to be respected, they need to realize they need to hold themselves to higher standards than they hold the rest of us. The police need a culture change to the point that they themselves need to realize that “a few bad apples” is unacceptable and reflects badly on them all. So that even the worst racist police officer does a double-take and thinks: “I may want to do … but it’s gonna reflect real badly on my colleagues.”

  7. John Morales says

    ionopachys, “framing”?

    You do know we can all see the videos, right?

    (Also, are you so sure there was no such, ahem, “framing” before the first reports of assaults bullying some reporters on the street?)

  8. John Morales says


    If the police want to be respected, they need to realize they need to hold themselves to higher standards than they hold the rest of us.

    Let’s not get carried away; merely the same standards would probably do, and even improving to only slightly lower standards would be helpful.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 ionopachys
    the cops are bullying some reporters on the street.
    They are doing so well that, IIRC, reporters from Al Jeezera, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are reporting being hit by rubber bullets and flash bangs deliberately targeting them and a reporter and cameraman from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were beaten (good photos!) so that the Prime Minister of Australia is muttering about an inquiry.

  10. ionopachys says

    There is an entire genre taking headlines that twist language into all kinds of contortions to avoid plainly saying, “police (assaulted/injured/killed) this unarmed person” and editing them to be accurate. The fact that there are lots of videos of the police attacking peaceful demonstrators wouldn’t actually require mainstream coverage to clearly and honestly depict that fact. Reporters and editors choose whether to describe the mass gatherings as protests or riots. They aren’t being forced to accurately label the protests “non-violent.” That’s why I used the word “framing.” Sadly I can easily imagine coverage minimizing the police violence and finding ways to make the protests sound violent. That’s often the way it goes. It’s actually good that so many reporters are getting a taste of the brutality that police dish out on a daily basis.

  11. jrkrideau says

    Heck according to Politico the US Federal Gov’t, alone, has 132,000 civilian law enforcement officers. The Smithsonian has its own police force!

  12. John Morales says

    ionopachys, thanks for the clarification.
    But be aware ‘framing’ connotes ‘spinning’.

    Sadly I can easily imagine coverage minimizing the police violence and finding ways to make the protests sound violent.

    No need to imagine.

    For example:

  13. Who Cares says

    I think it is not that they haven’t tried focusing on property destruction. It is just that most of the looting and vandalism was done by white people and caught on (phone)camera or worse by cops and caught on camera.

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