The Stories We Tell: Rewriting the Moral Code for American Police
At a time when the entire human race is existing through a massive and shared catastrophe, our systems, our governments, and our communities are showing their weaknesses. Old and agreed upon truths about right and wrong, good and bad, who is entitled and who is undeserving are being exposed as fraudulent and dangerous. Our individual morals and the moral codes of our systems are increasingly out of alignment. This misalignment is so great that it often appears impossible to make a moral choice in a system with a broken moral code. American policing is a perfect example of just such a system. Built on abuse of power and intentional divisiveness, the moral code of police in America is totally broken. So broken it seems impossible that any cop, no matter how “good” a person they are, could ever be a “good” cop. How can we rewrite our systemic moral codes to align with our rapidly evolving morality? How do these agreed upon truths survive long after their corruption has been exposed? Looking at how police came to be, where they are, and where we might go with that particular system, may shine a light on how we can rewrite the moral code to many of our broken systems. Before we get to that though, we need to take a little detour into how we believe and why.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari claims that the most powerful of humanity’s special qualities, more than opposable thumbs, or our gangly, naked, bipedal agility, is our ability to tell stories. (18) The evolution of speech and its use for communicating imagined realities through story is a uniquely human trait. (Harari 22) The ability to recall the past and imagine a future that can be shared with other humans has been the most impactful of all of humanity’s evolutions. Look around, everything we’ve built started as an imagined possibility that was relayed as a story that then became manifest; a material fact. Those opposable thumbs are important, but they are nothing without a good story. Harari proposes that even more importantly, our use of stories to explain the unexplainable have resulted in agreed upon truths that are never material; truths like ownership, money, religion, borders and flags, and emotions. (24–25)
Human feelings are only feelings; physical sensations created by the brain in response to external stimuli. Feelings are not emotions. Emotions are the stories we tell about feelings. Like most evolutionary traits, a feeling’s primary function is to give us a progress report on how well we are surviving. Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, Lisa Feldman Barrett, states it simply, “Your brain makes an emotion by using learned concepts to make predictions and give your [physical] sensations meaning.” (2) The brain uses concepts (stories) to construct emotions in response to input that is there to facilitate the prime directive of all biology; survive and procreate. Fear, love, happiness, sadness, are all constructs (emotions) that give meaning to our feelings. (Barrett 3) These stories come from different sources. The first source, personal experience, is obvious. Harari gives the example of seeing a lion by the river one day. The human brain will tell a story about the river because it can imagine that the lion may be there the next day. (22) The brain would then likely generate adrenaline to prepare the human for fighting or running from a lion. Barrett would presumably argue that our brain would then create an emotion (fear, apprehension) to help us understand the situation, predict the outcome, and more importantly, communicate it to others. Communicating the story to others is the second source of meaning for our feelings; tribal communications that explain the world and evolve into cultural truths essential for survival. Stories handed down generation after generation with such authority that they often erroneously hold the weight of natural fact.
Generational mythologies are one of the pillars of societal morality. Sociologist and theologist, Peter Berger, introduces his concept of the nomos in his famous book The Sacred Canopy. According to Berger, the nomos is essentially the order created by a society based on its worldview and its values. (18) Our worldview and collective values are the product of shared stories and experiences meant to bring predictable responses to the stimuli of an unorderly world. (Berger 18–21) Humans want stability and order, to be able to predict what nature, other humans, and our own selves will do in any given situation. We hand down stories based in fact. E.g. “Lions like to hunt for prey by the river, so beware.” We also hand down mythologies that become accepted as fact. E.g. “God will punish you if you don’t follow the laws humans have made in His name.” These stories become the moral code, or the nomos, of a society or system. Bound to our feelings as emotional content, any attempt to evolve beyond the nomos can feel very dangerous. Berger says, “The socially established nomos may thus be understood, perhaps in its most important aspect, as a shield against terror.” (22)
Even though we understand that there is individual freedom to deviate from the accepted moral code, the societal or systemic pressure to adhere to it can make the choice to deviate feel like one of survival. If it feels like life or death, we will almost always choose the path that feels like life, dismissing potential alternatives to the nomos as fanciful or worse, heretical. So, the applied meaning to our feelings becomes true and unassailable; the nomos. Philosophy Professor Garrath Williams speaks of complicity in collective harms. When logic or science contradict a nomos, which science seems to be doing at every turn, Williams claims that we find ourselves facing unavoidable complicity in a system running on a broken moral code. Acknowledging the dangers of climate change while still driving a car, for example. (1) Our constantly evolving individual idea of what is “good” is often at odds with our societal idea of “good.” As our knowledge of the world grows and contradicts our old moral codes, we are constantly faced with the need to rewrite the moral code; a daunting task when our brain tells us that we are rejecting the path of survival. For lack of a better way to say it, that shit is scary.
The American nomos is built on many elements of the original American myths that go back to 1492. It is also built on a foundation of stories that go back to the beginning of human history. Imagine any of our principals based in “honor” or “glory.” Our national anthem’s primary story is that a flag is worth killing and dying for. Our age-old ideas on poverty and wealth are baked into our national DNA. These tired old stories have origins older than written language. They are myths handed down in the name of unity and service (I’d go so far as to say “servitude”) and they become the moral code for many of our most important systems. One such system with a nomos built from the worst that America has to offer is the police.
American policing is the result of four centuries of generational mythology that includes extreme racism, classism, and an unreasonable pressure to glorify risking one’s life for the sake of property. Historians and sociologists have traced modern American police forces directly to poor colonists paid to enforce the contracts of poor, white, indentured servants, (Zinn 45–46) and the slave patrols used for capturing, punishing, and returning black slaves. (Chaney, Robertson 45) According to Historian Howard Zinn, Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 reverberated through the society of rich landowners and stayed in their collective memory because, “ What made Bacon’s Rebellion especially fearsome for the rulers of Virginia was that black slaves and white servants joined forces.” (55) So, the landowners ingeniously elevated the poor whites, turning them into the slave patrols and effectively separating the poor into different subclasses based on color. The formalization of police in the 1800’s was a natural evolution. Poor whites were elevated to the job of protecting unfairly acquired riches from the indentured servants and slaves who did the work to amass those riches in the first place. According to Professor of Justice Studies, Dr. Gary Potter,
More than crime, modern police forces in the United States emerged as a response to “disorder.” What constitutes social and public order depends largely on who is defining those terms, and in the cities of 19th century they were defined by the mercantile interests, who through taxes and political influence supported the development of bureaucratic policing institutions. (3–4) Protecting mercantile property and maintaining a civil and “tranquil” workforce were the primary objectives of our modern police. (Potter 3–4) These police forces were built over time with the strategy of dividing the poor into “others,” and everyone fit in a hierarchical system with black slaves squarely on the bottom rung. The descendants of those slaves remain on the bottom rung if seen through the filter of the nomos of modern police. It can be assumed that there are plenty of “good” people that become police. Smart people that understand the fundamentals of compassion and integrity. Many of them likely join the force to do good work. “To Protect and Serve” is certainly a slogan that triggers some of our deeply held beliefs about what it means to be good. That slogan fails to point out who an officer will ultimately be protecting and serving.
The narrative that builds a police officer’s emotional content and subsequent survival instincts starts in training. Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, was a member of Washington, D.C’s volunteer police reserve corps. Her experience at the police academy was like training for a paramilitary organization. (1) Brooks speaks to where the indoctrination into the police nomos begins, “If we want to change policing, we need to also turn the spotlight onto police academies, where new recruits are first inculcated into the folkways of their profession.” (1) The use of the word “folkways” directly illustrates the use of a handed down narrative.
Policing was a community obligation until the 1800’s when formal police forces began to take shape. New York’s official police department began in 1845, Washington D.C. in 1861. It was at this point that policing became a paid, full time job. It’s also at this point that training the police as military began, including uniforms and military ranks. (Brooks 3) In most of America’s police academies a military bootcamp style of training is employed. The purpose of which is to strip the recruit down to a reactive survival machine that can, “…run toward gunfire, not away from it; and they have to remain cool and professional in the face of chaos, threats, and harassment.” (Brooks 2) Inherent in military training is the idea that there are the people you fight with, your unit, and everyone else. The most important of those “others” are the enemy. If we are training civil police as paramilitary, who is the enemy?
Police in the United States kill over 1,000 people a year, a disproportionally large amount of those killed have black or brown skin. (Brooks 4) In contrast, only fifty-four civilians have been killed by police in the U.K. since 1900 (As of 2015.) (Chaney, Robertson 46) If a new officer is taught that his survival in the face of the enemy depends solely on the paramilitary approach of having his unit’s back and his unit having his, then how can we expect even the most moral among us to see criminals as anything other than mortally dangerous? This indoctrination of “us vs. them” starts at the very beginning of a candidate’s career at the police academy. Once on the force, an officer has to buy into the story and step in line. If they rebel against the nomos they get sidelined at a desk, or find themselves forced to quit a job that requires a large investment of time and energy to get into in the first place.
Young police are taught to listen to everything the more experienced officers teach them. This is the way with all generational mythologies, dogmas, and religions. “If you want to survive, do as I say.” By the time an officer is experienced enough to potentially see a different way of doing things, it is likely that their brain has engrained some very predictive thinking for efficient survival reaction. The concepts and stories that Barrett refers to as shaping our brains ability to predict would likely have carved some pretty deep neural pathways by then. Defense mechanisms that the average bystander would see as barbarous may feel like the only option to survive in the heat of the moment for a police officer. A long history of stories, narratives upheld generation after generation in American policing, are that black and brown people are inherently criminal. If an officer’s predictive brain immediately tracks black and brown skin as inherently criminal (the enemy,) it will also immediately turn on the physiological response to danger if an officer is in the presence of someone with black or brown skin. This often is true even if the officer has black or brown skin.
In James Forman Jr’s Pulitzer winning book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, he explains that the racist history and cultural norms of police “made it less likely that [black officers] would do what many reformers hoped they would: buck the famously powerful police culture. The few who tried paid a high price.” (qtd. in Carbado/Richardson 1987) He also brings the source of police brutality back to classism, “But even those who saw themselves as pro-black . . . engaged in aggressive tactics against black citizens whom they saw as a threat to law and order. In part, their conduct reflected class divisions within the black community” (qtd. in Carbado/Richardson 1987) No matter your skin color, the most important nomos for police is the nomos of police.
This by no means excuses the murder of unarmed civilians, but it is easy to see how, for example, the Department of Justice found the Ferguson Police Department “…frequently engaged in ‘implicit and explicit racial bias…’ and ‘…routinely violated the constitutional rights of its black residents…’” in an investigation launched after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson. (Chaney, Robertson 46) Berger’s idea of the nomos, “…perhaps in its most important aspect, as a shield against terror.” (22) paints a stark picture when imagining the tenacity required for a cop to make a morally sound decision that contradicts the nomos of policing.
The passing on of generational myths that form police policy is only the first step to indoctrinating police to do their duty; protecting and serving the owners. It’s clear a picture has been painted of civilians as worse than just an enemy when we see the brutalization that is possible from militarized police against its citizenry. There is a need for police to literally dehumanize the subjects of their attention if they are to routinely use physical force against fellow humans. We may not be hardwired for emotion, (Barrett 1) but we are certainly hardwired to make connections with other humans. Matthew D. Lieberman, psychiatrist and behavioral scientist, believes that our need to connect with other humans is as strong as our need for food or water. “We have profound proclivity towards trying to understand the thoughts and feelings bouncing around inside the skulls of people we interact with.” (qtd. in Cook) Empathy is actually an instinctive trait in humans. In almost all mammals, there is a need to connect and support each other for survival. To turn so instantly on other humans with a force that seems uniquely prevalent in American police requires a cop to sever their connection to another’s humanity.
Experts in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and sociology exploring our survival instincts have found that humans shift into survival mode through triggered responses to stimuli that the brain has learned to recognize as dangerous. They can be internal triggers from past trauma or learned triggers from being taught to fear something from our seniors, mentors, parents and peers through generational mythologies. It’s fairly simple, given the capitalist and racist origins of police, paramilitary training creating a survival/enemy environment, and the backing of systemic racism, to see that dehumanization is core to the broken moral code of policing. Professor of Psychology, Darcia Narvaez says, “It’s important to remember that the dehumanizers actually believe that the people they persecute are less than human, making the process of dehumanization very dangerous.” (2) Learning that “others” are dangerous leads easily to good people engaging in dehumanization. (Narvaez 2) Beyond the danger this poses to the citizenry, what long lasting effects does this have on the police?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health disorder that comes from acute or sustained trauma. Any situation intense enough to shock the brain into survival mode provoked by an extreme sense of danger can result in PTSD. Psychologist and researcher, Melanie Greenberg Ph.D. explains the effects of PTSD as,
…phobias, sleep disturbance, negative mood, anxiety, and attention/concentration difficulties that interfere with academic or career success. Research in neuroscience suggests impaired functioning in brain areas responsible for threat detection/response and emotion regulation account for many PTSD symptoms. (2)
Any number of reasons that someone would consider calling the police have the potential to be PTSD level events, not only for the citizens making the call, but for the police themselves.
PTSD often leads to alcohol and drug addiction. Addiction specialist Dr. Indra Cidambi has studied the effects of PTSD in police and has found that the rates of PTSD symptoms are much higher in police than the general public. She found that on average, 20% to 30% of American police officers suffer from some sort of alcohol or substance abuse. In contrast, the general population hovers around 10%. (1) Police also have much higher rates of suicidal ideation. (Cidambi 2) With symptoms like “negative mood, anxiety, and attention/concentration difficulties” and “impaired functioning in brain areas responsible for threat detection/response” (Greenberg 2) it is understandable that cops would quickly devolve into a tribal survival mode and lean heavily on the nomos of their system to make it through a shift. How can a police officer, under this kind of stress, trauma, and overwhelming systemic pressure be anything but reactive, insular, and dehumanizing? As a result, they spread the disease of trauma to the general population they are meant to serve, and they even pass it on to their own families, a domino effect known as transgenerational trauma.
Psychologist Molly Castelloe Ph.D. explains transgenerational trauma as, “Psychic legacies [that] are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between adult and child. Sometimes anxiety falls from one generation to the next through stories told.” (1) Transgenerational trauma is the baggage that we carry from generation to generation through stories and actions of our mentors suffering from PTSD, often a result of an event that happened generations earlier. Psychologists and trauma specialists speak of the conscious message of safety and goodness that parents relate being in complete contrast with the unconscious and often physical messages that the world is absolutely not safe. (Castelloe 1) So, here we are again. Our collective stories and actions creating corrupted rules of survival in our tribal systems. Transgenerational trauma can clearly be seen in the nomos of American policing, and it is undeniably an affliction shared by virtually any black American descendant from slaves. (DeAngelis 36) With the symptoms of PTSD surviving in our unassailable cultural truths, with a nomos steeped in fear and trauma, how are we meant to move forward? How can we rewrite the moral code of our families, and our governments, and our police?
Changing the moral code of any system is a parallel track. The individual growth needs to come first, but very quickly as that growth is shared among members, an attempt to shift the moral code begins. It can take a very long time and takes a certain critical mass of individuals for a nomos to truly switch. Marriage equality in the U.S. is a great example of reaching that critical mass after decades of hard fighting. Spreading the truth to individuals, and eventually to the highest court in the land, that homosexuals are humans entitled to equal treatment under the law often felt like an uphill battle at a snail’s pace. But towards the end of that battle there seemed to be a bit of a quickening. Knowledge and acceptance started to spread exponentially. The people opposed to marriage equality dug in hard but were overpowered by a new nomos. When the supreme court ruled on the subject it became the law, and for the most part, accepted. The civil rights movement and the suffrage movement had similar “critical mass/tipping point” moments. I am by no means suggesting that homosexuals suddenly received equal treatment free from homophobia, discrimination or attacks. Or that people of color or women were suddenly treated fairly and free from violence. We are far from total buy in on those subjects, but in those cases the nomos undeniably changed. Berger says, “It makes no sense to imagine that [a] nomos will ever include the totality of individual meanings. Just as there can be no totally socialized individual, so there will always be individual meanings that remain outside or marginal to the common nomos.” (19) Though it is still a struggle to be treated fairly for many historically marginalized people in America, one could argue that the nomos has changed and that those who still fight against equality are “outside or marginal to the common nomos.” (Berger 19)
We have yet to reach that critical mass tipping point for change in our police forces, but the quickening seems to be happening. To change the nomos of modern American police requires us to start with the emotional and mental health of the individual officer. What we find first is that we are instantly challenged with internal resistance to anything that has to do with mental health help. “Cops are loath to admit that they have a mental health issue and therefore treators should employ a proactive approach.” (Castelloe 3) Lifting the stigma of mental health help, proactively addressing trauma, and even mandating therapy sessions as early as the first week of police training would be a huge step in shifting the culture towards a healthier mind and a new nomos. Therapy will not be enough though. Talk therapy is an inherently self-centered approach to mental health. This isn’t a bad thing. Self-awareness and addressing your own trauma are important. But building a connection to other humans, reversing dehumanization, and rebuilding true empathy will be required if the moral codes of police are to produce a “good cop.”
Expanding on Barrett’s ideas on the predictive function of emotions, (2) we can look to the theory of the Default Mode Network. Michael Pollan’s research into psychedelics lead him to the work of a number of neuroscientists working with the DMN. First introduced to science in 2001 by neurologist Marcus Raichle, “ The network forms a critical and centrally located hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotion.” (qtd. in Pollan 301) This is the area of the brain responsible for ego, our awareness of our past and future self, and the filtering of information to create order. It’s the mode responsible for the rigid thinking that comes from the predictive survival mode. (Pollan 302–303) An overly active DMN creates a rigidity that focuses on self and creates a separation from others and nature. (Pollan 304) Psychopharmacologist and researcher David Nutt referred to the DMN in no uncertain terms as “…the neural correlate for repression.” (qtd. in Pollan 306) Neuroscientist Robin Carhartt-Harris believes that a hyperactive Default Mode Network may cause some of the more common mental illnesses that we relate to PTSD. Carhartt-Harris thinks that there are “… a whole range of disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thought — including addiction, obsessions, and eating disorders as well as depression…” “(qtd. in Pollan 313) Maybe quieting the DMN is one of the ways to thaw a rigid nomos and unravel some of the tightly wound narrative loops that result from PTSD and transgenerational trauma.
Quieting the Default Mode Network and allowing new, less rigid forms of thinking into the brain can be accomplished a number of ways. All of which should be considered as effective treatments for trauma in police officers, but also in training new and presumably healthy cadets to create a police force of empathetic civil servants. Pollan focuses primarily on psychedelics as an approach, but concedes that this quieting of the DMN can happen,
“ …perhaps also by means of certain breathing exercises (like Holotropic Breathwork), sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences…” (306)
While I’m not advocating for prescribed near death experiences, these other approaches can find their roots in meditation or contemplation. The Director of Research at University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness, Judson Brewer, found that the experiences of expert meditators who described a dissolution of ego or “transcendence of self” had brain patterns that were strikingly similar to those on psychedelics. The result of a quieted DMN. (Pollan 304) Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF found in a controlled experiment that an 8-week program using modern approaches to emotional intellect and well-being in conjunction with a secular meditation practice alters “cognitive and emotional states and traits relevant to personal well-being and social cohesion.” (Kemeny 346) Meditation and contemplation in conjunction with empathy training incorporated at the very earliest stages of police training would certainly have an effect on an officer’s view of the citizenry they are meant to police.
An even more radical approach might be psychedelic therapy. A colleague and co-researcher with Carhartt-Harris, Dr. David Erritzoe studied the effects of psychedelics on treatment resistant depressives and concluded,
Where changes in Neuroticism and Conscientiousness are consistent with what has been observed previously among patients responding to antidepressant treatment, the pronounced increases in Extraversion and Openness might constitute an effect more specific to therapy with a psychedelic. (368)
While it seems unlikely that a guided mushroom trip will be a mandatory experience for new police cadets any time soon, the idea isn’t totally out of the realm of consideration. Psychedelic therapy doesn’t require sustained treatments like SSRi’s or anti-anxiety medications and even holds hope as a cure for some mental illness as opposed to merely a treatment of symptoms. In studies, one psychedelic session was often enough to kickstart the rewiring of the neural pathways, loosening the rigid mind. (Pollan 375–377) While this could be a huge benefit to individual officers, the “system” can’t take a mushroom trip. The newfound empathy and openness the officers might learn in training could just as easily be erased if the police force itself isn’t rewired.
Defunding the police is a current catch phrase that has caused a lot of upheaval in public discourse. Our engrained nomos of the police as “the good guys” has been mightily challenged in recent years as we witness, through cell phone videos of unjust violence, the unraveling of that myth. The idea of taking money from the paramilitary style approach to policing and reallocating those public funds into community services and mental health programs seems to be one of the most reasonable solutions on the table. We should only ask police to fight crime, and furthering the idea that mental health issues are not criminal issues, we should move 911 calls that are primarily mental health events from a police response to a mental health response. Funding once used for tear gas could go towards field therapists that can properly assess and defuse a mental health situation. Money used for funding tanks and assault rifles could be moved into community services needed for the “training” of the general population. Training that would be akin to the training I’ve proposed for the police officers. With this reallocation of funds talk therapy would be made available to the general public to address PTSD and transgenerational trauma. Funding would be made available for community meditation centers, and even consciousness expanding organizations that safely lead people through psychedelic therapy. If our communities were learning to reverse the effects of trauma and dehumanization at the same time and in the same way as our police, then police and the citizenry could meet each other on the field with empathy and openness. Fear and survival mode would not be the first instinct on either side of most interactions.
Policing in America is an acute example of the disfunction of systems built from an overdeveloped survival mode. A survival mode built on myths based in classism, racism, and violence. Police reform is needed now, but the ideas of quieting the rigidity of the mind and expanding our awareness and empathy towards others is an approach needed in almost every modern system of governance and organization. Our shared history as Americans is one of violence, revolution, and abuse of power. It’s a history of colonization and theft. But our shared history as humans is so much more than that. Beyond the act of eating and procreating, our primary function is connection. We are meant to take care of each other. We are tribal. As our awareness of others has expanded to the entire globe it becomes undeniable that our tribe is absolute: We are all humans with more in common than not. Humans have shown time and again that we have the ability to rise above our basest instincts to expand our consciousness. I believe we are experiencing a new wave of that expansion now. And while it is very uncomfortable to destroy and rebuild a nomos as fast as our collective truths are currently being re-written, I’m optimistic and excited to see what that new moral code will look like.
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