Police Brutality: Its Origins, Its Nature, and Its Ontology 12/6/11


Alexander Michael Ziperovich


“You only know who you are through the enslavement of another.”[1]


            In this paper I will explore the nature and the origin of the ruthless enforcement of the law by the police, their oft-overlooked vicious and random brutality, the way they consistently employ an “ends justify the means” philosophy and further why we as a society accept that philosophy, their distinct psychological affect and profile, both in the group and in the individual police officer, and how all of the aspects of what we term “police brutality” are accepted, normalized, and integrated into American society at large. This paper will include personal anecdotes, philosophical and psychological interpretation, and will attempt to piece together a more clear and lucid understanding of the complex ontology of the efficient, effective, and pervasive violence of the police in the United States of America, and will attempt to answer how, when police so often behave as barbarically as they do, our collective, societal conscious reacts or fails to.


            I was going to eat with a friend four or five years ago on a busy sunlit day in the University District of Seattle with human beings everywhere walking, talking, and enjoying life and the light in the rare sunny day in Autumn in Seattle. After I parked my car I needed to get across a usually busy street to reach our culinary destination. The street was at that moment, however, completely devoid of traffic, so I decided to “jay walk” instead of needlessly walking down the block to the crosswalk to cross. I hadn’t noticed the gleaming police cruiser parked idling on my left as I walked across the street, passing almost directly in front of it. The imposing white and black vehicle suddenly pulled out fast as if to strike me; I watched through my peripheral vision its silver grill wrench after me like a fist being thrown or a knife being jabbed, and then as unexpectedly as it started the car stopped, a few feet short of hitting my body. I looked back for an instant and I continued walking and before the air above me had collected the words of frustration that I had muttered under my breath in my terrified anger, I found myself surrounded and then suddenly manhandled and restrained by six or seven uniformed police officers, who saw it fit to press my neck onto a nearby rounded steel bicycle post while screaming at me to “Stop resisting!” over and over; an insane irony, as if I could possibly have done anything to resist this small army of muscled, well-armed men created and positioned for combat. They pressed my Adams-apple down hard onto the horizontal section of the steel pole, sticking out of the concrete like an overturned U, until the unrelenting pressure on my throat disabled my ability to breathe and I disregarded my natural instincts that told me to defend myself against attackers and I let my body go limp in the hopes that they would release me for air before I suffocated and lost consciousness. After they allowed me to breathe, they took my ID and finding nothing of interest in their computer networks, threatened me with jail when I meekly questioned their use of force for jay-walking, and ultimately released me from their custody and fled the scene uncharacteristically quickly (for the police), not charging me with any crime or an infraction of any kind as all the students and other onlookers glared at them after the violence everyone had just witnessed. That night my family and I were deeply contemplating bringing suit to the Seattle Police Department for this act of tyrannical and arbitrary violence until, in my blind rage, I drank myself into a stupor, falling down my stairs into a wall, ruining my face for the moment, and ruining my chances for any sort of retribution. How could I go report police misconduct with a self-inflicted injury caused by my own drunken disrepair? I was left in a state of rage and fear and disillusionment.


“Let me initially put the issue this way: one is insulted, and insulted deeply, because one loses all possibility of innocence.”[2] George Kateb explicitly states that one is being directly harmed when watched, that it is injurious to one’s “personhood” to be surveilled, or to know that one is being surveilled. Now, anytime I see a police cruiser, or a police officer, or any member of law enforcement stomping around in shiny black combat boots with the demeanor of someone itching for battle, dressed high in blue with all of their variously intimidating regalia on their wastes alongside their huge black Austrian semi-automatic weapons strapped to their torsos, I feel immediately threatened and frightened; the police, through their first act of arbitrary violence against me that I have just described, succeeded in retarding my innocence and now forevermore I am condemned to be afflicted with the fear and the anxiety that was produced from that single incident, it has been seared into my psyche. I will never forget begging and pleading with them for the right to breathe oxygen because I had unwittingly made some police officer angry for a reason I will never be able to ascertain.


Thus, their insane act of violence against me has reminded me that fear is necessary whenever I am within close proximity to one of these men or women or one of their machines of imposition, that I should be aware that as I am watching them watch me, the chance of random violence is unequivocally real and ever-present. My right to privacy, then, has become something of a sick joke. I am forever surrounded by police as they are everywhere amongst us, and I am, thus, almost always in some state of angst thinking that they will succeed in doing me physical harm, and based on the level of unhinged aggression that they unleashed upon me the first time they decided to for no reason whatsoever, I now find myself in fear for my life when I see the police, and not without good cause.


This is the logic of fear that causes our society in the face of so much evidence of unrelenting, unpunished police brutality, so many newspaper articles accompanied by and describing disturbing photographs of violence and videos of police inflicting horrifying mayhem gone viral on the internet, of a police officer pepper-spraying an 84 year old female protester and a pregnant 19 year old protester in the face at point-blank range recently in Seattle, to accept a small line of justification from a journalist that “the specific officer involved has been placed on administrative suspension” as justice of some sort. We have been rendered helpless as children in a den of lions and since the abuse of power that is being inflicted is not quite so overt or corrupt or outrageous as it is in many other countries, and, perhaps more importantly, that those in political power are the least likely to ever be injured or affected by this type of abuse, we are content, as a “civilized” nation and society, to let the issue of extreme violence allowed to run riot upon us by those that are sworn to enforce our law and maintain order as an issue that is one best discussed in private, in university classrooms, dinner tables with family, and essentially all but ignored alongside a proverbial, collective sigh that at least it was not us that was assaulted with poisonous gas in the face for asserting our constitutional right to peaceably assemble and protest.


“The idea of human status contains more than the imperative that basic rights, as currently interpreted, be respected. It also includes the imperative that no policy, seemingly within the scope of rightful state policy, can have the effect of treating a person as if he or she were a child rather than an adult, or as a mere means to an end; or has altogether forfeited consideration as a human being because of some crime or alleged crime.”[3] As George Kateb explains, any true policy respective of currently accepted human rights cannot violate an adult wherein that adult is made to feel like a child, or in other words, helpless, and as I have previously asserted, we have been made to be as helpless as children in the den of a lion in our public sphere due to brutal policing and a lack of strong reaction to this style of policing. Police officers consistently are in the business of delineating who should be rendered helpless, which communities, which races, which religions, which groups, and which individuals are expendable or need to be made to have limited rights and status. Drawing from my own encounters with the police, observations, and my personal understanding of the police on a larger level, they operate on a foundation whose guiding principal is that there exist two types of people with little differentiation or thought as to who fits where excepting the obvious: cops are good and, well, the rest are not until they prove themselves otherwise, there are good people and there are bad people, one must be either right or one must be wrong and there exists no grey area for debate or further examination and if you are not good you must be dealt a swift blow of violence or incarceration; it must be assumed, then, that if you are a police officer, you exist in the obvious and coveted position of righteousness, that if you are a police officer you are a good person. The rigidity in this kind of institutionally mandated thinking leads to an intensely problematic scenario where a group of select individuals forget or dismiss the importance of nature of the means in order to achieve the end. Crime is bad, cops are good, the equation is simple and the targets are plentiful; the machinery of the modern police is an example of what happens when slaves are given weapons and told to forget what they must do to accomplish the task of ridding the streets of crime, but to just do it. The statistics of any department reign supreme over the conduct of any individual officers conduct.


These cops, who are of the same social status as those that they are commanded and indoctrinated to condemn and destroy through physical violence or the threat of physical violence and imprisonment, are filled with a kind of self-loathing God-complex. This self-hatred has its origins in the neighborhoods where ordinary cops come from and they are led to believe that they are somehow better and superior to those that they must enforce the law upon. But this is a shallow lie, a thin illusion that doesn’t work; these men are not idiots although they may often act like sheep. These police officers know that they are of the same social status as those they are supposed to subjugate and you find the slave enslaving the slave, trying to find a realization that he is a master where there is none, he is simply another common slave with a shiny gold badge given to him so that he may work for the masters and protect the masters’ wealth but never work with the masters nor share in their wealth.


This creates “ressentiment”[4], Nietzsche believed that all existence, or all that we could possibly know of it, consists of a struggle between different “wills to power”[5], that various “forces” were constantly at work as the motivators “behind every concept [arising] from the equation of unequal things.” These police officers are a collective force in the grand struggle between differing wills to power and they represent a contradictory, self-desecrating group; the men that are in tow with the responsibility of ensuring the imprisonment or death of criminal elements originate from the same tribe where that criminal element is born and bred and cultivated, they are the same men as those they are charged with murdering and incarcerating. This is a heavy, horrible burden, for who but an antisocial monster can feel righteous when they kill and maim their own? There must, then, be an opposing ideological resistance to being the same as the men they hunt, and from this resistance comes much of the self-hatred that fuels the police in their corruption in the application of the law.


I claim that a specific, externally hidden self-loathing is the primary driving force behind police brutality; a frustration at the knowledge of their own true slavery consumes these “public servants” that the masters have manipulated to their own benefit to ward off “slave revolt” and ensure that they can continue in their complete domination by creating enmity between the subservient and the other, better subservient, the police. This is a classic tactic used by totalitarian regimes; they use their own peasantry as a barrier between themselves and a weapon against itself by propping up one special group or sect creating animosity and envy amongst what was once a whole community, ensuring the ressentiment at being a slave is not focused on the masters but always remains trapped in the peasant quarters, festering and becoming stronger – this is something we can see today in Baghdad and the modern American ghetto: hatred towards the police by the people and hatred toward the people from the police. Although many of Nietzsche’s concepts work well for this composition, I am only using bits and pieces from his entire Genealogy of Morality and reforming his ideas so that they fit my own so as to aid in completing my analysis.


As the “police are always on the border between legality and illegality”[6] they inhabit an awkward, dangerous position in our societal structure. They are at once the modern guardian of the aristocrat, the capitalist and his wealth, and yet they almost exclusively find their origins amongst the plebian. The disenfranchised and often impoverished neighborhoods that breed the modern American gangster criminal are very often the same ones that breed the modern police officer; the foot soldier cop almost never comes from wealth, status, or power of any relative importance. Thus, there is a class of men and women pitted against their own to protect a tiny, rarefied bracket of power and money for people that they will never know and a group they will never truly play any role in. Here we find the cyclical nature of Nietzsche’s slave morality[7] in play: these police officers and the prison guards responsible for maintaining their captured status that are born in poverty are collected and indoctrinated with a false, propagandist debt which becomes a hope of elevating their political, social, and financial standing and they are sold into the idea that might be achieved through their slavery to the rich as cannon fodder to the violence in the ghettos surrounding the suburbs where they could never hope to live but only to protect and patrol. Thus, they are slaves controlling lesser slaves, but they are taught that they are slaves of a higher “patriotic” order and this is the illusion they must reliably to believe to be successful and rise through the ranks. The police are put in a position where they can derive “the pleasure of having the right to exercise power over the powerless without a thought,”[8] and experience “even a foretaste of higher rank.”[9] The latter is critical to the police officer. Without the appearance of an ostensible access to a higher social strata there would be no gain as a slave police imposing alien laws on other fellow slaves, the money isn’t enough and it’s danger is extreme and constant.

Now that I have uncovered the origins of the psychology of self-hatred that contribute to the violent conduct of the police as a whole force, now I will introduce a more individualistic approach that focuses, ironically, on Freud’s theories on group psychology and “massenpsychologie” in particular. Freud believed there was a direct correlation between the decrease in rationality and intellectuality and the increase in the irrational fervor and behavior of a group. As each individual member loses his identity to the will of the group he succumbs to the simple, irrational desires of the group and loses his own identity and ability to think outside the dictates of the group. The NYPD during certain periods and specifically the LAPD’s Rampart Division Gang Unit known also as CRASH during the late 1990’s is a perfect symbolic police unit to exemplify this theory.

The only way to achieve relative success (success being prestige and rising through the ranks in this group) inside that group was through corruption and violence, and the more that corruption and violence increased the more it spread and the less police thought about it in consequential or intellectual terms, as long as it was somehow framed as “fighting crime”: CRASH’s motto was “We intimidate those who intimidate others.” Officers were awarded special plaques for killing suspects and there were ritualistic meetings and tattoos where officers would congratulate each other on taking out gang members using illegal methods. If you bucked the force’s status quo you would be an instant enemy of the LAPD and a target of their violent regime. This helps explain why arbitrary and racially motivated murder, graft, drug dealing and all manner of corruption went unchecked for such a long period – there was no one capable of pushing the stop button once the fervor of the crowd grew so loud the individual officers voice was completely muted; there is testimony that everyone involved in CRASH operations was aware of its culture of illegality and that around 70% participated, including lieutenants and other higher ups. As the violence and corruption grew and the Rampart Divisions CRASH team’s tactics became increasingly more grisly and blatant (and the fervor of the group’s culture increased) there seems to have been a declined awareness amongst the individual members of the true nature of their own behaviors and actions because they were always construed as being for “the cause” and thus membership to the police force alleviated any responsibility the individual might have felt committing murder or stealing cocaine from the evidence room and reselling it if he had not been so deeply entrenched in the tidal wave of group fervor, deep love, and ultimate loyalty for that group’s cause: wiping out LA street gangs.             

In that specific police unit “all [the police officers’] individual inhibitions [fell] away and all the cruel, brutal and destructive instincts, which lie dormant in individuals as relics of a primitive epoch, are stirred up to find free gratification.”[10] As the violent apogee of the Rampart Division came to an end there were 70 police officers under indictment and far more than 70 unsolved homicides, robberies, and other felonies that were attributed to CRASH and its players.

CRASH is an important case study but it would be foolish to think that because that specific unit was so extreme and its correlatively matched fervor and violently irrational behavior were so extraordinary that other regular police units don’t have a similar culture; I believe that almost all police units possess some measure of what CRASH epitomized. There is violence, excess, misdirected anger, corruption, cruelty, and self-loathing. Whether they are as brash and impetuous as CRASH or as diffident as the officer who uses a some extra force when tightening handcuffs to show who’s boss, these are traits that I believe are universal to modern police-work in the United States. Cops hate themselves because they have the worst job there is, they force themselves to believe they are of a different social status, that they are not from near-poverty, that they are the same as the lawyers, doctors, and businessmen they defend but in the end the truth prevails and they are forced to confront the fact that they have hurt many to defend what can never be their own and to honor those who would never honor them.

The final psychological puzzle piece to me is perhaps the most obvious when trying to gain an understanding of the brutality of police. Cops are subjected, day in and day out, to crime. They are around crime and criminals around the clock and one can only deny himself to be the result of what one knows himself to be apart of for so long; police begin, after a period, to typify the crime they ingest for a living and eventually, in the worst case, they embody it. As CRASH’s motto was to “Intimidate those who intimidate others,” it makes logical sense to believe that a young, right-minded police officer is a different man after 5 years and a different man again after 10 years on the job. One only has to witness how hard a human being will try to blend in and become like what is around him, so this acclimation or desensitization to crime may in fact reflect Freud’s views on group psychology, that something “is unmistakably at work in the nature of a compulsion to do the same as others, to remain in harmony with the many.”[11] In fact, here I will make what may seem to be an outrageous claim: the police are in the same group as criminals, excepting formalities, there is little difference in motive between a cop with a gun facing off against a murderer with a gun. Freud describes one losing himself to the group, the larger, the more powerfully he is consumed and how the “individual loses his power of criticism, and lets himself slip into the same affect.”[12] He becomes entangled psychologically with the criminal mind as the cop spends more and more time around more and more criminals, “the affective charge of the individuals becomes intensified by mutual interaction.”[13] However, on Freud and his Oedipus Complex, I believe it an imprudent if not an impulsive and irresponsible answer to such a complicated matter, a matter that involves the perversion of an individual’s idealization of economic class and social status as two far more important facets of determination than does Freud’s libidinous suppression acting as the master of my theory. Human nature is police brutality, but I am not sure that psychoanalytic theory and moreover Freud provides any concrete answers outside of group psychology. I believe Nietzsche offers many more lit torches on the dark path towards understanding those that would seek to do us harm in the name of justice and his Genealogy of Morality provides an excellent way of understanding the furious rage seething beneath the calm and controlled exterior of many of the law enforcement officer’s we trust to save us from the evil’s they portray; they are committing metaphorical macro-masochism as they try to run from their origins, become anything but what they are, and suppress the truth of these matters. There must be a way to make police more accountable and the only reason police brutality continues to exist is because our police and our politicians want it to exist, but for what reason? That reason is the deleterious nature of the question at hand, if one confronts an entire system, one must be prepared to eliminate and replace that system. We are comfortable in our lazy hostility and we are terrified that if we turn the pressure valve left we will be left in chaos. Perhaps, we will.

















Kateb, George, On Being Watched and Known. in Patriotism and Other

Mistakes (Yale University Press, 2006)

Freud, Sigmund, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Sigmund Freud

Copyrights Ltd., 1959, Reprinted by arrangement with Liveright Publishing Corporation

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Genealogy of Morality. (Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Miller, Greg MD, “Lecture on slave consciousness”, Contemporary Political Thought, 

Seattle University, late Autumn 2011.






[1] Dr. Greg Miller, “Lecture on slave consciousness”, Contemporary Political Thought, Seattle University, late Autumn 2011.

[2] George Kateb, On Being Watched and Known, in Patriotism and Other Mistakes (Yale University Press, 2006) 97.

[3] George Kateb, On Being Watched and Known, in Patriotism and Other Mistakes (Yale University Press, 2006) 95.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 20.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 52.


[6] Dr. Greg Miller, “Lecture”, Contemporary Political Thought, Seattle University, mid Autumn 2011.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 20-27.


[8] [8] Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 41.


[9] [9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 41.


[10] Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Sigmund Freud Copyrights Ltd., 1959, Reprinted by arrangement with Liveright Publishing Corporation, 15.

[11] Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Sigmund Freud Copyrights Ltd., 1959, Reprinted by arrangement with Liveright Publishing Corporation, 22.


[12] Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Sigmund Freud Copyrights Ltd., 1959, Reprinted by arrangement with Liveright Publishing Corporation, 22.

[13] Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Sigmund Freud Copyrights Ltd., 1959, Reprinted by arrangement with Liveright Publishing Corporation, 22.

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