Police accountability

Illustration by Suraj Nair.
Illustration by Suraj Nair.

Police in today’s society have quite a bit of power with very little accountability, and we have known for decades that such authority inevitably leads to abuse.

As many psychology majors know, a famous study called the Stanford Prison Experiment shed light on the depths of cruelty and depravity normal individuals can sink to in certain situations.

The experiment went down more than 40 years ago, in 1971, and was led by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a rather off-putting but engaging man who seems to perpetually sport the same circle beard.

With the promise of a little participation money, a group of young men were told that they were either going to be prisoners or prison wardens and then placed in a jail environment to see what would happen.

Things hit the fan. Despite being scheduled to last two weeks, the experiment abruptly ended after only six days. The reason? The participants had become so distorted by their fake roles that some started to have mental breakdowns and outbreaks of sadism, and some even went on good-old hunger strikes.

These rather unfortunate responses were the result of some very unfortunate roles the individuals took on during the study. The prisoners quickly became sick of being referred to only by a number and treated less than sweetly by their fellow participants acting as guards.

The guards stripped the prisoners naked, put bags over their heads and made them do exercises to humiliate them. Later, they started interrupting the prisoners’ sleep and harassing them emotionally.

It’s pretty important to emphasize the fact that such degeneracy occurred after only six days, and that the individuals involved were all screened to make sure that they weren’t, you know, completely insane. The fact that such abuse can happen so quickly in a group of normal individuals who just answered an advertisement in a local paper is startling.

So what does that mean for the modern police force? It means that the power of situation and the illusion of authority can lead to incredible brutality in a very short amount of time. Individuals who are put in that position of power on a daily basis must be held accountable. We have to make sure that the inclination to be a complete jackass is stomped out frequently.

There are instances of police brutality all the time. Portland developed the reputation of being a “shoot first, ask questions never” kind of city.

There was William Kyle Monroe, for example, a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder who was crippled by a police officer in 2011 when the cop decided Monroe was just acting too weird and shot him. Oh, and the incident sparked a lawsuit that cost Portland $2.3 million dollars.

Jason Cox, who was lucky enough to get security camera footage of himself being beaten, is currently suing Portland for more than $500,000. The video shows police officers pushing what looks like a very calm Cox to the ground, using a taser on him four times and punching him repeatedly in the face.

Of course, it’s not just our city that faces problems with violent police officers. Seattle was a little embarrassed back in 2010 when an officer named Ian P. Walsh decided to punch a 17-year-old right in the face. Again, the young woman was lucky enough to get the incident on camera.

There’s not necessarily a clear solution to this problem, but it is very apparent that the problem exists. I would also argue that it is our responsibility as citizens as well as the responsibility of the government to make sure that we protect police officers from themselves, especially given the knowledge that an average person can fall victim to his own depths of vindictiveness when in a position of power.

We set ourselves up for failure by not monitoring our police. There needs to be a better system by which impartial groups can monitor police and keep them honest and decent.


  1. The lady punched in the face in Seattle deserved what she got. The lady was resisting the officer who was out numbered on the side of the street. I would suggest she cooperate in the future. Bad things do not happen to people who comply with the law. This article is obviously jaded as most things your talking about happened over 40 years ago. I would also suggest you take a tour of a jail or prison here in Oregon before you take such a view.

    • Hi Jib. I wish that as you say “bad things do not happen to people who comply with the law” was completely accurate. But it isn’t. Mistakes are made in the heat of the moment-force is used unnecessarily, or not in proportion to need. Just as there are crooked businessmen, crooked pastors, teachers that seduce their students, dishonest lawyers,jurors, and judges, and spiteful co-workers, or just people having a bad day, just too tired to take the time to react appropriately, or smartly and instead make a bad,impulsive, decision. some police offers do make mistakes as well, and mistakes that non-police do not have the authority or power to make; so its very important for them to be aware of the influence one position of authority can have on them as individuals and not let that power unnecessarily take control of their actions or do harm. Simply having the power to do something does not mean that power should be used but unfortunately having that authority lures people to wanting to use it, even when it is not necessary.Maybe even looking for any little ruse to justify a stop or reason to question someone. And so, the results can be that even those in compliance may find themselves being strip searched on the side of the road following a bogus traffic stop. It happens.

      • State police stop-and-searched me on the side of SRA1A. Insisted that I dump my clothes out of my travel bag in the dirt. Claimed that I was “hiding in the bushes” when the truth, and they knew it, was that I stepped off the pavement onto the shoulder as it did not appear that their patrol car was moving over to miss me. So that I did not want to be hit or barely missed was their justification for an unlawful stop-and-search.
        Calling on police to report a minor crime, the kind that goes on 24/7/365, may irritate the cop who takes the report and bring harassment. Many police and sheriff’s departments now take burglary, theft, vandalism reports by e-mail only.
        Unless I call on them I have to regard police as a possible enemy. Even then they may turn on and attack me – especially in small towns and rural counties the cop who answers your call for assistance may be your attacker’s brother or second cousin.
        The Supreme Court in 1983 found that police can lie and commit perjury (lying under oath) with 99.9999% impunity as long as they lie against the citizen. Now if a police officer were to lie in favor of a citizen the prosecutor would “throw the book at” the cop, so that never happens. In the O.J. Simpson trial Detective Mark Fuhrman thought he was lying to help the prosecution but he got caught in his lie, impugning his vital testimony resulting in Simpson being acquitted, so he did get prosecuted and convicted of perjury. Exceedingly rare case.


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