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Government Enforcers and Group Psychology


I discovered an old, obscure study recently that piqued my interests. In 1977, the Police Foundation – a private, non-profit organization dedicated to seeking innovations and improvements in policing — published a study of the San Diego police force entitled “Patrol Staffing in Sand Diego: One- or Two-Officer Units.” The study is a modest one that mostly explores the greater efficiency achieved with police units that only staff one officer per patrol car.

But aside from efficiency, there was one curious element to the finding that further supported the argument that two-man patrol cars were a bad system: police abuse. In one section (page 38 of the study), it was noted that “two-officer units were involved in significantly more citizen complaint incidents per unit . . . than were one-officer units). Additionally, the study noticed that officers who had a history of being part of two-officer units had higher rates of incident than officers who had a history of being staffed alone.

To be sure, there are numerous incentives in place that encourage police abuses — both in the form of positive incentives, such as the pressure to make arrests, and negative incentives, such as the lack of individual costs incurred by police officers guilty of abuse. As Bruce Benson noted in The Enterprise of Law, the popular political solution for deterring police abuse — the exclusionary rule, which regards certain evidence as inadmissible in court if illegally obtained — has an insignificant deterrence effect. With the exclusionary rule, “the only personal cost to a police officer for improperly obtaining evidence is indirect.” An officer has only remote possibilities of job loss — further diminished by the protection of police unions — so the worst fear for most repeat offenders is the possibility of being passed over for promotion.1

Benson adds that “If sufficiently direct sanctions were applied, then police ‘bullying’ would be significantly reduced without any exclusionary rule.” Legal scholar Richard Neely suggested making individual police precincts financially liable for property damage and attorney fees in the case of policy abuse, while Benson takes the more radical, Rothbardian approach of advocating that the individual officers be held legally responsible (short of the complete privatization of the police, of course). But he also notes that these solutions will never be seriously considered by a legislature.

RELATED: "See how the Supreme Court effectively did away with the exclusionary rule to help wage the War on Drugs."

But the notion that police abuses are more common merely from staffing two officers in the same patrol car is a curious one. One- and two-man patrols presumably have the same political incentives and deterrents regarding police abuses, but the disparity in the number of citizen complaints is statistically significant. This begs an explanation that goes beyond the typical political incentive structure.

Fortunately, Lt. Col. David Grossman provides some useful insight in his book On Killing. Grossman, of course, was not concerned with police abuses in his book. He was concerned with similar and often more egregious abuses of power by members of the military in foreign countries (more specifically, he is concerned with the psychological elements involved in creating trained killers).

In the second chapter of Section IV, he examines the group mentality of soldiers. First, he looks at the increased bravery and willingness to take risks that soldiers have when operating as a unit, and like our San Diego police officers, he notes that even in groups of only two, these effects manifest. Group accountability, he contends, can have some positive effects on soldier behavior. But then he turns to the other consequences of group cohesion: the greater propensity for brutality.

He refers to the cause of this effect as “Group Absolution.” When people are acting as a group — even a group of two — there is a “diffusion of responsibility” that, as “has been demonstrated in literally dozens of studies . . . bystanders will be less likely to interfere in a situation in a direct relationship to the numbers who are witnessing the circumstances.”2 With police monitoring groups gaining an increased presence through the internet and social media, it is easy to find endless videos of police abuses caught on camera, where we often see a number of police officers who are not partaking in the abuse, but are also not interfering to put a stop to it (and many cases in which the entire group is participating, as well). This appears to be consistent with Grossman’s analysis of combat units.

Ben Shalit, another combat psychologist, explains further in The Psychology of Conflict and Combat:

All crowding has an intensifying effect. If aggression exists, it will become more so as a result of crowding . . . The effect of the crowd seems to be much like a mirror, reflecting each individual’s behavior in those around him and thus intensifying the existing pattern of behavior . . . thus increasing the dehumanization that “transfers men into beasts.”

He also notes that “under crowding conditions . . . Aggression escalates from the aim of domination to that of destruction due to a vicious combination of attack remoteness and group cooperation.”

The causes of this mentality are what Grossman refers to as a sense of “accountability (to one’s friends) and anonymity (to reduce one’s sense of personal responsibility).” Grossman argues that “the more members in the group, the more psychologically bonded the group, and the more the group is in close proximity, the more powerful the enabling can be.”3

But although he is looking at combat killing, this mindset certainly applies to police. In two-man patrol squads, the propensity for complaint-inducing abuses of power increases dramatically over solitary patrol officers. As even a group of only two, this psychological bonding, diffusion of responsibility, and accountability to a partner certainly still exists. SWAT teams provide an even clearer example of the combat psychology on police abuses, as larger, more militarized groups were formed only a year after the Police Foundation study was published. Unfortunately, their modest (and hardly libertarian) proposed reforms to curtail these abuses and other inefficiencies were still too much for the state monopoly, which has effectively zero incentive to address the problems.

  • 1. Bruce L. Benson, The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State (Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute, 2011), 121.
  • 2. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, rev. ed. (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2009), 152.
  • 3.  Ibid., 153.

Chris Calton

Chris Calton is an economic historian and a former Mises Research Fellow. He was the writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

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