Have you ever experienced “mob mentality”, in which you were driven by the actions of those around you to do things you’d never normally do? I did when I joined in physically shaming and injuring a man. It was during the centuries-old “Crossing the Line” ceremony in the Navy, and without going into details, we took it much too far. The key is this: it was as if the fact that we were committing the abuse together both permitted and validated the abuse itself, so none of us felt any compunction about making it even worse. The man we were injuring was no longer a man, but an object somehow deserving of our righteous wrath. It was only a couple weeks later that I began to realize what I’d done, and why I’d done it. I had allowed myself to be affected by mob mentality (also called ‘herd mentality’). Worst of all, I was part of the Master-At-Arms office, the shipboard police force. There was no possible excuse for my actions.
When I see broadcasts of police brutality up to and including homicide, I know in my heart that they’re probably experiencing that same psychological dynamic.
America is by far the most violent of today’s first-world nations. Our nation’s homicide rate is higher than those of India, Cuba, Sudan, Zambia, Niger, and Pakistan, among others. Some may disagree as to why American society is so violent, but it is inarguable that one direct result is the militarization of the police — not just their equipment, but more importantly, their mindset. After all, every time a policeman pulls over someone for a traffic violation, he knows he might be facing a felon with a loaded gun. In the Harvard Law Review, former policeman Seth Stoughton provides this description:
…[as a rookie cop] you have been told (repeatedly) that your survival depends on believing that everyone you see — literally everyone — is capable of, and may very well be interested in, killing you. Put in that position, would you actually get out of your car and approach someone? (source)
Policeman Samuel Johnson Jr. points out the cynicism of police in general:
As a mantra among police officers goes, “I would rather be judged by twelve than carried by six” — that is, 12 jurors rather than six pallbearers. (source)
Take a group of people, feed them a constant diet of fear and perceived threat, and soon that group will become not just aggressive in defense of their own, but unwilling to hold their own accountable. Now take that same group, give them badges and arm them (up to and including military-grade gear and capabilities), train them to dominate every encounter, and encourage a “warrior mindset” (as does the United States military). They will soon forget the tradition of “serve and protect”, for they are no longer walking among their fellow citizens, but among their enemy. The police can in fact become an occupying force. History is rife with examples of that very dynamic. This seems to be a growing reality in America, one that is exacerbated by the racism and white supremacy that has wounded our nation since its founding.
Of course no policeman or -woman will want to agree with that statement, for they are sworn to uphold the law, and every single day they put their lives on the line to protect the people. But they — like all of us — are human, and as such are subject to human foibles and psychology.
The video evidence of police brutality across our nation increases by the day, but the video of the murder of George Floyd provides a clear example of mob mentality among police. Yes, there’s one man committing the murder, but what about the other three cops? Did they wake up that morning with malice in their hearts? With them, I see not malice, but fear: fear of speaking up, of showing weakness in front of civilians, of letting down one’s fellow officers, and (probably) of assumption of guilt due to Floyd’s race. Add to these the components of mob mentality: desensitization to violence, diminished perceived accountability, and the strength of numbers. This does not at all lessen their culpability in the alleged crime, but instead shows that in America, police can be every bit as susceptible to “mob mentality” as the general population.