Early in my pursuit of an education beyond a GED, before I became aware of cultural and socioeconomic issues that plague minority races, I enrolled in a psychology course about social interaction. It was a skill that eluded me as a teen and seemed a good place to start learning. What I discovered fueled my desire to understand the complexity of human behavior, but it also created an interest in the experiments researchers use to explain and define that behavior.
The first study to draw my attention was the Stanford Prison Experiment. This was an attempt to recreate the power dynamic between prison guards and inmates by using college students as subjects. One group of subjects was designated “prisoners” and were confined in rooms meant to mimic cells. The smaller group of subjects was given control over the prisoners, acting as guards who searched, monitored, fed, and contained their charges. It took only three days for the experiment to reach a premature end because the guards became abusive, antagonistic, and demeaning toward the prisoners. This behavior was not a suggested course of action proposed by the researchers, merely a naturally occurring response to the imbalance of power.
Like many concepts in psychology, the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment seemed like common sense. When you debase and devalue human beings, when you treat them as “less than” other people, they resist, rebel, and attempt to escape that sense of worthlessness. The core of this imbalance and reason for poor treatment occurs when resources – such as freedom – are denied to one party and granted to the party directly interacting with them, creating an environment where denigration of the target is inevitable.
Denigration of the target results from the belief that people inferior to an authority are incapable of doing anything without direct oversight. Failure to respond to an order is usually met with punitive force. In many cases there are civil rights violations, torture, death, and a systematic destruction of a group –the kind that can lead to pogroms and ethnic cleansings. Lost in all of this is the ideal that people in positions of authority have a responsibility to value all life equally.
These days prison guards in the U.S. go through training to avoid the problems demonstrated in the Stanford Prison Experiment. They are taught professional conduct intended to curb the mistreatment of prisoners. For many, I’m certain the training works. The same can be said of police, whose training is much more vigorous than prison guards.
However, there are always some people who can’t resist the power of the position and they value only the strength of their authority. It becomes easy to think less of a person in prison and torment him or her. Less thought goes into killing a civilian who was never really a threat.
In the wake of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and others it’s hard not to think of the Stanford Prison Experiment. To some degree I understand why the police are given the authority to kill if the need arises. There are also checks and balances against this power so it’s not abused, but when these safeguards are not in the hands of an independent group of civilians they are meaningless.
By now most people understand prosecutors, judges, and grand juries work hand-in-hand with the police. Cops are granted their authority by the courts, but when that power is misused it’s silly to expect them to be punished with the same fervor used for ordinary people and indigent defendants.
A simple half-measure of a solution to this imbalance of power is greater transparency in the grand jury room and civilian oversight. The best solution would be the removal of absolute immunity from prosecution for police officers and prosecutors. If they obey the law while carrying out the duties of their position they have nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, the high standard of equal justice under the law is too much to ask the people