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‘Contagion Effect’ Spreads Brutality Among Police Officers

by Eike Blohm

The case of Tyre Nichols, beaten to death by five police officers during two encounters, has raised the question of how law enforcement officers could possibly commit such a brutal and heinous act. Laurence Miller, researcher and author of the 2020 book “The Psychology of Police Deadly Force Encounters,” believes the “contagion effect” gives rise to such instances of excessive force.

Most police officers are not bad people. While a small minority may fit the term “criminals in uniform,” using it as an explanation for incidents such as the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis is both simplistic and reductivist. Attribution of the cause of the officers’ behavior to their malicious character fails to consider the plethora of cultural and psychological factors which enable acts that end in the death of unarmed civilians and the hands of police officers.

Not every killing of an unarmed person constitutes excessive force by legal definition, although it may by ethical standards. If a police officer reasonably believes that a suspect presents an imminent threat to them or others, the law permits the use of deadly force. Application of force is only considered excessive if it surpasses the level necessary to control the specific situation, such as a kick in the ribs after the suspect has
already been subdued.

Excessive use of force tends to occur when a group of officers face a single suspect. The response of multiple officers to a scene is meant to reduce the risk of violence by establishing superiority in numbers but may paradoxically increase the use of excessive force based on police training and culture: when one officer escalates the level of force, the others immediately follow suit in order to back them up. Excessive force is thus contagious from one officer to the next.

The reason why an officer administers a disproportionate level of force can be multifactorial. They could be upset or annoyed with a suspect who forced a chase or was particularly verbally abusive. That is by no means justification. Police are to arrest suspects and deliver them to the courts, not dole out gratuitous, extra-judicial punishment.

Officers may also simply be biased as to how much force is required. Tests that have an officer decide whether to shoot while viewing images of persons holding either a gun or a harmless item (e.g., cell phone) show that officers are more likely to inappropriately opt to fire their weapon if the person shown is Black.

According to the contagion effect, it then only takes a single biased or angry officer to administer excessive force to create a Tyre Nichols scenario in which a group of police officers beat a civilian to death. But it’s important to note that the race of the suspect seems to be the critical factor, not necessarily the race of the officers because the officers involved in the savage beating of Nichols are Black.

The problem is compounded by police culture which is eerily similar to the culture among prisoners. There is an expectation of loyalty and secrecy. This precludes transparency which the medical and aerospace sectors utilize to perform root cause analyses in order to prevent recurrence of adverse events. Without this transparency, police cannot solve their excessive force problem. It was thought that wearable body cameras would pierce the veil ofsilence and prevent officers from committing atrocious acts by knowing they will be

recorded. This does not appear to work as intended as evidenced by the ubiquitous amount of body camera footage of Tyre Nichols’ death and other prominent incidents captured on police body cameras. The officers knew they were being recorded, yet they continued the merciless beating.

According to Laurence Miller, the law enforcement adage of “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six”provides an explanation. When faced with a (perceived) danger, the immediate consequence (death) supersedes the concern for the delayed consequence (prosecution), thus resulting in a tendency for overreaction rather than measured application of force. Additionally, some officers – especially those in task forces – feel untouchable due to their protection under qualified immunity and believe their desired ends justify the means. In the moment, the officers may actually believe their actions to be justified. There is no simple solution to this problem. 

Training that addresses police bias has no lasting effect, and the contagion effect directly arises from the necessary police tactic of backing up a colleague. Laurence Miller proposes a model of delayed transparency: after the trial has concluded and the legal aspect of the issue is settled, an event such as the death of Tyre Nichols should be transparently dissected in the service of preventing recurrence. The court will only attempt to determine which person is responsible, but a root cause analysis tries to find the factors that made such an event possible and aims to correct them, such as the contagion effect.




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