This paper examines several different articles from a variety of sources, time periods and countries to examine how social control theory plays a role in explaining the acceptance, justification and incidence of police misconduct and abuse. The articles do not directly address their topics from a perspective of social control theory, but the collective message that can be gleaned from reading the articles examined herein is that police abuse is inextricably tied to an overstated authority to protect and preserve the moral order.
The topics of excessive use of force by law enforcement officers in America and a seemingly systemic problem of being too quick to pull the trigger on innocent people due to a lack of any fear about paying serious consequences for such behavior has recently made it into the mainstream news coverage as the result of nearly weekly high-profile examples. Lying at the heart of this issue are several questions related to sociological theories of law enforcement that touch upon issues of social control.
“The Public Enemy is Silent” is a commentary published in The Nation by Silja J. A. Talvi on the subject of police response to a peaceful antiwar protest in Seattle, WA in the early days leading up to the invasion of Iraq following the attacks of 9/11. Talvi describes how the few hundred anti-violent protestors met practically an equal number of cops wearing riot gear, armed with assault weapons and stations as snipers on rooftops. One of the tenets of social control theory formulated by Travis Hirschi is that proper socialization which contributes to reducing deviant criminal behavior is a strong “belief in the moral order” (Matsueda, 2008, p. 103). At the heart of Talvi’s commentary is the sense that militarization of the police in the last decade has strengthened law enforcement’s belief in the moral order and intensified feelings about the part they play in maintaining it. That combination has also led to a greater sense of freedom in doing whatever it takes to keep that moral order in place, even if what it takes exceeds the limits of their authority.
“I Have Here a Warrant to Beat You Up” was published by Richard Cobley in The New Statesman nearly two decades between the subject of overly aggressive police conduct became suitable for leading the night newscast. Interestingly, this overviewed of the negative effects of a search warrant process deemed too loose not only describes a situation unchanged from today, but is also focused specifically on cases of Scottish police misconduct. The central basis of social control theory is that people are naturally expected to commit crime. Such an ideological perspective can only lead to the reality that “It is rarely necessary for the police to obtain an arrest warrant” (Colbey, 2000). This is true not just in Scotland, but the country whose architects of this constitution were extremely cognizant of “other essential rights, which we have justly understood to be the rights of free men, as freedom from hasty and unreasonable search warrants, warrants not founded on oath, and not issued with due caution for searching and seizing men’s papers, property, and persons. (Bloom, 2003, p. 11)
“Dissociation Common in Police Involved in Shooting Incidents. (May Facilitate High-Level Functioning)” by Carl Sherman differs from the other articles discussed here relative to theories of social control and abuse by law enforcement. Here is an article that contributes to the problem rather than merely describing it. Here is the description: “acute traumatic dissociation was reported in 30%-79% of civilian trauma victims. Time and perceptual distortions, two principal forms of dissociation, were reported by 60%-80% of law enforcement officers involved in shooting incidents” (Sherman, 2002, p. 36) and here is the contribution: “The findings suggest that dissociation is an expected response to trauma, and not in itself pathologic” (Sherman, 2002, p. 36). Such unscientific dismissal of what seems to be a quite logical connection between a constantly repeated pattern of officers shooting innocent people and pathology only serves to intensify the conformist acceptance among that police are not to blame.
“Arriving at Clearly Established: The Taser Problem and Reforming Qualified Immunity Analysis in the Ninth Circuit” was published by Kate Seabright in the Washington Law Review specifically in reference to how qualified immunity affects civil lawsuits filed against police officers involved in tasings. “The primary purpose of qualified immunity is to shield government officials from ‘undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability'” (O’Brien, 2004). Seabright points to how social control methodologies relies on giving special preference to those charged with upholding the moral order and also demonstrates that the legal justification for special preference can be as flimsy as the suggestion that “if government officials were liable every time their actions violated the law, they would hesitate to take action that might be ‘close to the line’ of legality” (Seabright, 2014).
The Birmingham Post of England weighs in on the issue of social control theory and police abuse with an article suggesting that “Police ‘Abuse Power to Detain under the Mental Health Act.’ The crux of this article is hardly relegated to English. We have already handed over to the police the powers of judge, jury and executioner of criminals without holding them accountable for getting it wrong so very often, but far too often the police overstep their boundaries as guardians of the moral order by acting as trained psychologists capable of determining in an instant the mental state of someone.
“Police Stonewalling is Another Form of Abuse” specifically addresses the infamous case of an officer shooting and killing Michael Brown within the context of two different tenets of social control theory. One is the fact that criminal behavior is thought to be a gimme within this theory that is expressed in the very psyche of cops who view everyone as guilty. The other is the protection of deviant behavior by law enforcement behaviors. Deviant behavior is said to result from a lack of self-control that is expressed through impulsivity and risk taking (Bohm, 1997, p. 88). The charge to control socialization through force has led to situation where “Ferguson’s police chief believes he isn’t legally or morally obligated to share basic information about the killing of an unarmed citizen” (Norman, 2014).