News & Politics

People Who Become Cops Tend to Have Authoritarian Personality Characteristics

Research shows a correlation between police behavior and authoritarianism.

There are many important questions about police brutality in America that are not being asked by the mainstream media. 

What sort of police officers would behave this way? Are they driven to this type of negative behavior by their training? Or do police have a psychological (and political) predisposition that encourages such actions?

Are police officers such as Darren Wilson, his brethren in Ferguson, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death, the cops who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, or police union representatives such as Jeffrey Follmer or Patrick Lynch, channeling quintessentially American values, or are they petit-authoritarians, outliers of a sort, who self-select into police work?

There are many reasons these questions don't get asked by major news networks in primetime. Primarily, the connective tissue between those questions consists of racism, classism, and how so much of white America is largely in agreement with white on black and brown police violence as a matter of public policy.

But criminologists, psychologists and other social scientists have compiled a large amount of data on the relationship between police behavior and authoritarianism. This information is readily available and highly accessible to the general public. However, it is not discussed by the corporate news media because the facts cannot be readily reconciled with the mythologies that surround (and protect) America’s police.

There have been many articles written about the political personality types of the police. One of the most influential is the 1972 work, The Police Personality: Fact or Fiction by Robert Balch. He explores several questions in an effort to crystallize the various arguments in the research on police psychology: 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?

On the topic of authoritarianism and police, Balch summarized one of the main veins of thinking from the literature at that time:

a. Conventionalism: rigid adherence to conventional, middle-class values.

b. Authoritarian Submission: submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.

c. Authoritarian Aggression: tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.

d. Anti-intraception: opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded.

e. Superstition and Stereotypy: the belief in mystical determinants of the individual's fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.

f. Power and "toughness": preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness.

g. Destructiveness and Cynicism: generalized hostility, vilification of the human.

h. Projectivity: The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.

i. Sex: Exaggerated concern with sexual "goings on."

Only superstition, apparently, has never been used to describe policemen. Otherwise the dimensions of authoritarianism seem to describe many police officers very well. In fact, the typical policeman, as he is portrayed in the literature, is almost a classic example of the authoritarian personality.

Balch highlighted the following quotes from interviews with police at that time:

If people in general are no good, then "coons" and "spics" are worse. All they like to do is drink, make love, and collect their welfare checks: "These scum aren't people; they're animals in a jungle....Hitler had the right idea...."

He continues his summary:

Several other traits are frequently but less consistently used to describe the typical policeman. Police officers supposedly distrust ivory-tower intellectuals and bleeding-heart humanitarians. A good policeman is a realist who learns by experience and not by reading books. He respects authority and knows how to take orders. He likes to give orders too, and he demands respect from juveniles, criminals, and minorities.

In thinking about the video-recorded murder of Eric Garner, or Darren Wilson’s profoundly racist and fantastical explanation of his reasons for confronting and killing Michael Brown, this excerpt from Balch’s work is extremely disturbing:

According to Banton and Tauber, American policemen cannot rely on the authority vested in their uniform to gain compliance. Instead they feel compelled to assert their personal authority.

The citizen may take offense at the policeman's intimidating manner, and the stage is set for a violent confrontation in which each party is struggling to maintain his self-respect in the face of a perceived threat by the other. Westley adds that the lower the status of the citizen, the greater the threat he poses to the officer's uncertain self-esteem. In this context police brutality is indeed understandable.

America’s racial and social hierarchy demands that black people are subservient and defer to white people. Although the language and logic of white privilege in this regard has “evolved” from the overt demands of black deference during Jim and Jane Crow, it still remains in the age of Obama.

Black Americans routinely face such treatment and expectations in the form of micro aggressions, and in the context of police behavior, by stop-and-frisk policies, “shopping while black,” and racially discriminatory treatment at every level of the criminal justice system.

The debate about the relationship between authoritarians as self-selecting into police work and how police culture encourages such behavior continues decades later.

However, there is a rising consensus on some aspects of the relationship where local police culture reinforces social dominance and authoritarian tendencies (as well as intolerance of the Other), those individuals who are most authoritarian are more likely to succeed in the profession, and that police are recruited from a sub-segment of the population that may be more prone to authoritarian behavior.

The racist and authoritarian behavior of police in the United States reflects a broader (white) American culture that nurtures and accepts such values.

Recent experiments in political psychology and public opinion research reveal that white respondents actively and knowingly support racism by the criminal justice system against black people.

These findings complement the findings by social scientists (and others) that demonstrate the power of implicit racial bias in how whites relate to African Americans, the enduring power of symbolic racism and white racial resentment, the sense of social distance and lack of warmth white Americans feel toward blacks, and the inability of whites en masse to feel sympathy or empathy for non-whites as full human beings.

A recent analysis by the Washington Post also shows how in the aftermath of Ferguson and the Eric Garner cases, white Americans are now more likely to be supportive of the police and have confidence that they treat non-whites fairly.

Such a conclusion is madness: it requires a wholesale rewriting of the facts and a retreat to a default position where whiteness imagines itself as innocence and racism is an outlier and fantasy of black and brown people.

The white paranoiac gaze is able to twist reality to such a degree that a black man being choked to death is somehow guilty for his own murder, and a police officer shooting an unarmed person who was surrendering to him are made just or reasonable.

Immoral and unjust acts are defended and rationalized by a learned behavior that sees all black people as dangerous and outside of the protections afforded to white Americans by the law.

In a morally just world, police cruelty would result in a decrease of support for, and faith in, the police by white people. But, as it has done both historically and in the present, whiteness perverts and warps white America’s ethical sensibilities and rationality.

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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