Monday, December 15, 2014

Police Power Exceeding the Capacity of the Human Brain: Some Countervailing Measures

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton’s timeless statement is applicable to legal and illegal power alike, for each is subject to abuse. The victims are those whose wills are bent through either harm or the threat of injury. Put another way, the human brain may lack sufficient cognitive, emotional, and perceptual machinery to check the instinctual plus socialized power-aggrandizing urge. This vulnerability is particularly apparent in viewing video showing a police employee violently over-react in a situation that quite obviously should not have involved violence. Although anger doubtlessly plays a crucial role in the trigger that unleashes the police violence, the more subtle suspension of cognition and warping of perception is also in the mix.

In December 2014, a 23 year-old policeman in Victoria, Texas, pulled over Pete Vasquez, aged 76, because Vasquez’s car did not show an inspection sticker. As Vasquez was trying to explain that his car was exempt—a point that the police chief later confirmed—the policeman grabbed the old man, pushed him to the ground, and used a tazer gun twice. “What the hell are you doing? This gentleman is 76 years old,” a sales manager watching the incident cried.[1] Clearly very angry at Vasquez, the policeman yelled at the onlooker, who seems to have suddenly feared for his own safety.

That the reasonable reaction from a third-party triggered more anger instead of any second-guessing, at least visibly, suggests that the policeman was not in control of his faculties. Crucially, he was not in sufficient control of himself to handle the power that he had been given by law. Psychologically, he evinced a weakness in handling the power in the context of not understanding why the car was exempt from having to show an inspection sticker. An arrogance in not wanting to admit even to himself that he did not understand what he himself had flagged, and a cognitive lapse in assuming that he could not be wrong likely contributed to his need to be in charge and thus his anger at Valsquez for trying to correct him. The anger itself was too much for the policeman, for it eclipsed reason and even perception whose impairment rendered any internal mechanism of self-regulation insufficiently operative.  In short, he used power beyond the capacity of his brain, emotionally, cognitively, and perceptually.

It may be that the authority given to police employees generally is not in keeping with the capacity of the human brain to process and handle power exercisable over other people. Compounding the problem, the police chief talked only about taking “a real hard look at some of the actions that occur within the department,” rather than arresting the aggressor even though the latter action would befit a person who had lost control of his faculties and acted out violently without reason. That the policeman was shifted to an administrative duty is itself an indication that official accountability would come up short within the police department. The implication is that the general public (and city officials) should not rely on departments’ internal-affairs departments to impartially investigate such cases and render sufficient punishment to “their own.” Put another way, the conflict of interest in the very nature of an internal-affairs department is inherently unethical because it can be expected to result in compromised investigations and decisions. To hold a police employee accountable, we must look beyond police departments.   

Although the district attorney said the policeman could face charges including official oppression, injury to elderly, aggravated assault and assault, the grand jury stage may be rigged to favor police employees. That is to say, the system itself may enable the propensity of the human brain to over-react with violence when in a position of power over another person without a sufficient internal check. Given the risk of aggrandized uses of power by police employees, candidates for local offices not only in Texas, but in each of the forty-nine other member-states in the U.S., might consider proposing institutionally and personally independent agencies to hold lapsing police employees accountable. Additionally, legislation changing the instructions to grand juries making it less difficult to indict an employee of a police department could be pursued. Especially if scientists find that the human brain is in fact ill-equipped to handle the power typically given to police employees, then either some of that power should be taken away, which may not be practical, or countervailing changes to grand-jury instructions enacted.

[1] Ed Mazza, “Texas Cop Nathanial Robinson Uses Stun Gun on Elderly Man Over Inspection Sticker,” The Huffington Post, December 15, 2014.