The stubbornness of excessive force by police

August 6, 2013

Regarding the Aug. 3 editorial “Split-second decisions”:

The use of deadly force by Loudoun County sheriff’s deputies instead of subduing a disturbed woman raises important public safety issues. While the deputies’ actions appear to have been legally justified, the episode was nonetheless tragic. Obviously, law enforcement officers need to protect themselves. 

However, the editorial was correct that more might have been done to save the woman from herself. Lately, we have seen several disturbing incidents of police use of deadly force in otherwise tranquil Washington suburbs. Use of violence against citizens in general, and of deadly force in particular, is a critical indicator of what criminologists call the culture of a police department. There can be good, highly professional cultures but also bad, violent cultures. For example, for some decades, the Prince George’s police seemed to have had a disturbing propensity toward the use of excessive force, which ultimately led to intervention by the Justice Department.

The stubbornness of this excessive-force phenomenon often can be attributed to the fact that, despite remedial training and enhanced supervision, a core of line officers may believe that their personal safety depends on “firm” responses, miscreants must be “taught a lesson” that only immediate painful punishment will convey and that violence is necessary because the police are misunderstood and often despised (a “we-against-them” ideology), standing alone against the forces of evil.

Harold Holzman, Columbia

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