Social Issues of Police Brutality: Research Paper

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As long as there are crimes, and people willing to or compelled to commit them, there will always be a need for specialized forces to serve, protect and keep us. Every day, in every city and town across the world, police officers sport their uniforms and serve the vital role of helping to make and keep our lives and the lives of countless others safer. Recently, however, police officers, our very same unmasked superheroes of the modern era, have been within our generation recurrently brought under intense levels of scrutiny and doubt based on their interactions with the general public. In August 2014, the situation had gotten so out of control that in light of the absolutely horrific and questionable shooting of civilian Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri, the American police task force was impelled by the United States government to introduce a particular technology we know today as the body-worn camera. With the introduction of this technology, the United States government sought to restore a greater sense of accountability and transparency as it relates to police officials and their interactions with who they deem to be “criminal suspects”. With the steadily increasing incidence of these instances of police brutality within the last couple of years, it raised the million-dollar question put forth by this assignment: How much and which forms of information do police officers need to arrive at or to issue an arrest warrant or to justify a warrantless arrest? Generally, as it relates to what the justice system refers to as “probable cause” with respect to whether or not a person is or can be considered a “criminal suspect” requires more than a mere suspicion that a suspect committed a crime — with that said, I imagine that insight into and evaluation of the roles of concepts like exemplars, prototypes, schemas and social representations and their consequent implications in situations involving interactions with police officers and civilians could be very valuable in providing an understanding of these very sensitive and critical situations.

Within the context of cognitive psychology, the exemplar theory of categorization serves as a proposal for explaining one of the many ways humans seek to mentally organize and store various concepts and ideas in psychology. According to American academic and author Daniel Reisberg, the term exemplar refers to a “specific remembered instance” or ideal example of knowledge about individual members of a category. The exemplar approach argues that we first learn or experience some specific examples of a particular concept; then further classify each subsequent instance of new stimulus by deciding how closely it resembles those previously learned examples (Medin & Rips, 2005; Wisniewski, 2002). Essentially, the newly experienced stimuli are categorized based on the greatest number of abstract similarities it holds with already existing exemplars stored within that particular category within our memories. As it relates to the example of an officer on patrol who has to arrive at a decision on whether or not a person can be classified a “criminal suspect”, the exemplar approach to categorization would suggest that in arriving at this decision the officer would make use of previously existing instances of encounters with other criminals. For example, in the case of the July 6, 2016 shooting of Philando Castile it was reported that at the time of the incident, a St. Anthony police officer patrolling Larpenteur Avenue radioed to a nearby squad that he planned to pull over the car driven by Castile transporting both his girlfriend and young daughter, and check the IDs of the driver and passenger, suggesting that, 'The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose. I couldn't get a good look at the passenger.” As seen in this particular example, the implication of the use of the exemplar approach in this particular case could be observed in the officer’s decision to pull over Castile and fatally injure him being based entirely upon a previously categorized instance of two suspected robbers based on something as universal to people of Castile’s ethnicity as “a wide set nose”. According to reports on the incident, it only took 40 seconds for Officer Jeronimo Yanez to gun down Philando Castile through his car window after having initiated a conversation — 40 seconds to decide, based on “a wide set nose” and simply “looking like people” that Mr. Castile was, as required by the justice system, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, this particular instance of overgeneralization of the police officer greatly cost a young woman and her four-year-old daughter, taking from them a life partner and a father.

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Linguistically, the term “prototype” is used to describe something original — which in consideration of its originality and uniqueness serves as a standard or primary example of a particular concept; and this is no less true in terms of cognitive psychology. Cognitive Psychology dictates that a prototype by definition, describes a stimulus which, with respect to categorization, represents the most central or salient member associated with a particular category. Similarly to the exemplar approach, the prototype approach speaks to what could be described as a graded notion of categorization, in that the prototype theory, when applied to the categorization of certain stimuli, associates particular models of stimuli more definitively as a member of a particular category than others. As instances of police brutality or police injustice increases it becomes increasingly apparent that there does seem to be a certain “prototype” that police officers are known to arrest and quite often, as seen in the Castile shooting and countless others, kill based upon their impression of these individuals as “criminal suspects”. Essentially, most of the victims of these police officers when arrested or even stopped based upon the assumption of their guilt, seem to possess very specific features. In most instances of police arrests, a majority of the individuals who actually “account for their crimes” or in other words are arrested tend to: be casually or “unprofessionally” dressed or be unemployed, live within lower-income areas, and seemingly most primarily be of African American descent. In observing the “prototype” set forth by the American Justice System i.e. police officers, it can be, on some level, safe to assume or imply that Caucasian men simply do not by any means seem to incur similar levels of police activity or even suspicion in relation to African American men, whether or not they are in fact guilty. In the case of the prototype theory, I imagine that the implications of this particular mode of categorization, as explained above, could result in particular members of society eg. Caucasian men, being overlooked or even pardoned for particular crimes and injustices based simply upon being overlooked for either “not fitting the role” or even more simply “being white”.

The term schema, as referenced in Cognitive Psychology, represents a pattern or framework of thought or behavior which organizes numerous categories of information within our brains or memories and further defines the relationships between them in the hopes of making future experiences with similar situations or concepts easier to navigate and understand. Examples of schemata include archetypes, social roles, world views, and stereotypes. Within our generation, and for as long as time can remember, stereotypes have been the most prominent and recurring of the aforementioned examples of schemata, especially as it relates to the example of police officers who “suspect” a person to be a “criminal”. In 1996, English Psychology Professor Mike Cardwell of Bath Spa University defined the term stereotype as “a fixed, over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people”. An example of a stereotype that seems to be fixedly and unwaveringly upheld by police officers within the American Justice System would be that all African Americans, primarily men, are inherently and unquestionably violent and angry and as a result must, in all cases, be considered dangerous. It is also firmly believed by police officers of this day and age, particularly of Caucasian descent, that men of this ethnicity do not respect men in uniform or their position of authority and must therefore be reminded of this position at each opportune moment, no matter the cost. The implication of this particular mode of categorization can be observed in each and every recorded instance of police brutality or misconduct whether reported accordingly or not within the last decade or so, and can also be found within the definition of the term in that by stereotyping an individual we infer that that person possesses a particular set of characteristics and tendencies that we assume all members of that particular group also possess. Cardwell suggests that by definition a stereotype is both fixed and over-generalized, with this in mind it is easy to imagine that with stereotyping we, as humans, are often prone to ignoring the individualistic and often personal differences of particular individuals and run the very dangerous risk of over-generalizing. With respect to the suspicion and often consequent and unwarranted murder of predominantly African American male victims this unwavering overgeneralization of the behaviors or tendencies of these individuals can result in police officers not taking the time or even being capable of acknowledging or noticing that this belief they have might not necessarily be true for all members of the schema of “criminal suspect”. An example of this implication in action can be observed in the incidence of the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. On February 26, 2012, within the gates of The Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman, who had been appointed as the community’s coordinator of the community’s neighborhood watch by Wendy Dorival of the Sanford Police Department based on crimes committed at The Retreat from January 1, 2011, through February 26, 2012, was driving around the neighborhood on a personal errand. As he went about his personal errand, George Zimmerman observed young Trayvon Martin returning to The Retreat from a nearby convenience store and upon having observed him and deemed him “suspicious” proceeded to report Trayvon to the Sanford Police Department based simply upon the fact that Trayvon was as described by Zimmerman 'just walking around looking about … wearing a dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie” and looking like 'he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something.” In this particular instance it is beyond safe to assume that Zimmerman’s suspicion and subsequent shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin were based primarily and absolutely upon stereotyping because according to reports we come to learn that during the months leading up to February 26, 2012, shooting, Zimmerman made numerous calls to the Sanford Police Department several to report people he believed to be suspicious. On each of these calls, Zimmerman found it important to offer up information about the race of his suspects which apparently were all black males despite the fact that the population of the development at the time of the shooting was about 49% non-Hispanic white, 23% Hispanic (of any race), 20% black, and 5% Asian, according to Census figures. Also, on the day of the shooting in that call he made to the department regarding his observation of Martin, Zimmerman was also reported to have stated unabashedly that 'these assholes, they always get away.” Trayvon Martin, as a result of George Zimmerman’s disgusting display of stereotyping, lost his life that day based simply on his attire, his gait, and ultimately, his ethnicity.

Finally, we will define, and evaluate the implications of, the social representations theory as developed by Serge Moscovici, which enables us to, on a global level, understand and explain the way individuals and groups within society elaborate, transform, and communicate their social reality. This theory, as I have come to understand it based on my research, speaks to a mental system or set of values, ideas, and practices almost akin to what we colloquially refer to as “common sense”. The term “common sense” describes a sound and practical ability to perceive, understand and ultimately judge our everyday experiences or encounters that are shared by or “common to” nearly every person. Essentially, the social representations theory posits that in order to understand and hopefully conquer or “master” our social and material world, we draw on or rely on shared views of the world based upon things such as our social interactions, our exposure to varying forms of media and their various portrayals, and also to our actual day-to-day experiences and encounters within our world. Needless to say, our views of the world are shaped and formed primarily based on who we are as people, where we are from, and the things we have experienced within our lives i.e. our experience and understanding of this experience “life” is entirely contextual. To that effect, McKinlay and Potter suggested that intellectual activity constitutes a mere rehearsal or representation of what has already gone before, in that our minds are conditioned by representations that are forced upon us. (McKinlay & Potter, 1987, p. 475) The very obvious, especially as it relates to police officers and their apparent bias as it relates to “criminal suspects”, implication brought forth by the social representation theory is that most police officers, especially within certain areas or “jurisdictions” possess rather outdated and outlandishly racist representations or systems of belief about exactly what “criminal suspects” look like and are expected to behave like dating as far back as the days of slavery. Sadly, most police officers or law enforcement officials are in fact of Caucasian descent and were consequently raised to believe that they can do no wrong, that everything they can see, touch and hear belongs to them, and that above all there is no one who can touch them, they are superior. With these outlandish and outdated beliefs in consideration it is incredibly easy to understand how based on years of what we came to know through Hitler as indoctrination, it would be so easy for the modern-day “cop” to arrive without a second thought that each and every Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown is fair game and is without a shadow of a doubt guilty; even if there only crime was believing they were free to live their lives.

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Social Issues of Police Brutality: Research Paper. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from
“Social Issues of Police Brutality: Research Paper.” Edubirdie, 19 Sept. 2023,
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