Police Psychology Behind George Floyd's Killing

Civilian complaints of major crimes declined during the police slowdown.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

Before the George Floyd tragedy, there was the case of Eric Garner (among others) who died on July 17, 2014, in Staten Island after being put in a chokehold by a police officer.

With several officers pinning him down, Garner repeated the words "I can't breathe" 11 times while prostrate on the sidewalk. Garner was pronounced dead at the hospital approximately one hour later. He was initially approached by NYPD officers, suspected of selling cigarettes from packs without tax stamps.

Paul Becker This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
George Floyd Protest, Columbus
Source: Paul Becker This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

On the evening of October 23, 2004, Frank Jude, a black man, was invited with a friend to a party hosted by a Milwaukee police officer in a middle-class white neighborhood, also attended by many off-duty officers. As he was trying to leave the party, Frank Jude was accused of stealing the host’s police badge (the victim has always protested his innocence), followed by him being very severely beaten, knifed, and kicked by a large group of men, including both on- and off-duty police officers.

One of the attending on-duty police officers repeatedly stomped on the suspect's head until bones could be heard breaking, a pen was shoved into both of Jude's ear canals, a gun was put to his head with threats to kill him, his fingers were bent back until they broke, plus his clothes were cut off him, leaving him exposed in the street. Subsequently, in the emergency room, the admitting physician took photographs, because Frank Jude’s injuries were too extensive to record in writing.

Following trials, several police officers received prison terms lasting several years.

Matthew Desmond from Princeton University, Andrew Papachristos from Northwestern University, and David Kirk from the University of Oxford have scientifically investigated the impact of this particular harrowing incident, finding that residents of Milwaukee, especially in black neighborhoods, were far less likely to report crimes after Jude’s beating was broadcast. The effect lasted for over a year, resulting in a total net loss of approximately 22,200 calls for police service.

Publishing their results in the academic journal American Sociological Review, the researchers concluded that police misconduct could powerfully suppress one of the most basic forms of civic engagement with law enforcement: calling 911.

Yet all police forces require the cooperation of communities in order to effectively maintain law and order in any neighborhood. It is largely the public who report crimes and identify criminals, so the constabulary can’t do their jobs if the public suspect officers are not so interested in lawbreaking, but instead are pursuing a racially biased agenda.

But this study, entitled, "Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community," also found it does not take a major or local event to reduce crime reporting. Milwaukee residents issued fewer calls for service after the local press reported the assault of Danyall Simpson by a white police officer, an assault less severe than Jude’s, and they were less likely to call the police after the killing of Sean Bell (in Queens, New York) made national headlines.

This research confirms that in the aftermath of publicized police violence against unarmed black men, residents of black neighborhoods disengage with the police. Police work of every kind relies on citizen participation, especially reports of lawbreaking. If police misconduct lowers crime reporting throughout black communities, it directly threatens public safety within those communities, many of which already face high levels of crime.

In a review entitled "Race, Place, and Effective Policing," Anthony Braga, Rod Brunson, and Kevin Drakulich quote data which reveals that just over 13 percent of the U.S. population was black in 2015, but of those murders, for which the race of the offender was reported, 53 percent of offenders were black. The review paper, published in the journal Annual Review of Sociology, similarly quotes statistics that 53 percent of race-identified murder victims were black. The vast majority of these murders were intraracial: In cases where the race of the offender and victim were both known, 91 percent of black victims were killed by black offenders. This investigation from Northeastern University also points out that serious but nonfatal violence disproportionately affected black citizens. In 2015, black citizens were 40 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white citizens to be the victims of rape, robbery, or aggravated assault.

Justin Nix, Scott Wolfe, and Bradley Campbell surveyed command-level police officers from a southeastern U.S. state about their attitudes concerning the war on cops and "de-policing." The study, entitled "Command-level Police Officers’ Perceptions of the 'War on Cops,'" found that a majority of senior police officers believed there had been a "war on cops" over the last few years. Moreover, the study, published in the academic journal Justice Quarterly, found officers who felt strongly about the "war on cops" were more likely to believe that "de-policing" (making fewer proactive, officer-initiated stops) is becoming more common as a result.

However, Christopher Sullivan and Zachary O’Keeffe conducted a study which found that civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault, and grand larceny) decreased during, and shortly after, sharp reductions in proactive policing.

The academics, based at Louisiana State University and the University of Michigan, analyzed the effects of a temporary aberration in NYPD strategy when police sharply limited foot patrols, criminal summonses, and low-level arrests in a manner unrelated to the city’s underlying crime rate. This was in response to a political fight between the Mayor, anti-police brutality protesters, and the city’s police unions, following the fatal shooting of two NYPD officers by an anti-police extremist; as a result, the NYPD held a work "slowdown" for approximately seven weeks in late 2014 and early 2015.

Because they are legally prohibited from striking, NYPD officers coordinated a work-to-rule strike, which was intended as a symbolic demonstration of power to illuminate the city’s dependence on the NYPD. Officers continued to respond to community calls for service, but refrained from proactive policing, refusing to get out of their vehicles to issue summonses or arrest people for petit crimes and misdemeanors.

Officers were eventually ordered to return to work by January 16, 2015.

The authors of this study, published in the academic journal Nature Human Behaviour, argue this made for a unique natural experiment to identify the impact of sudden dramatic changes in police practices.

It had been widely believed that it was the introduction of aggressive proactive policing in New York, which had produced the city’s historic drop in major crime. Cities across the planet adopted the NYPD’s protocols and practices, as the influential belief spread that proactive policing strategies deter major crime.

The psychological theory was that neighborhoods where minor crimes are unimpeded fester into breeding grounds for more serious criminal activity and, ultimately, for violence.

Yet during the police work-to-rule strike, this study found that civilian complaints of major crimes (murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand theft auto), declined by approximately 3-6 percent during the police slowdown, or 2,100 fewer major crime complaints.

The authors conclude that proactive policing efforts to increase civilian compliance in fact inadvertently contribute to serious criminal activity. One possible reason for this is that proactive policing is deployed disproportionately across communities and that areas with high concentrations of poverty and people of color are more likely to be targeted.

Chris Magnus was appointed Chief of Police for the City of Tuscon in January 2016, while before that he was Chief of Police for 10 years for Richmond, California, where no civilians (armed or unarmed) were killed by police for more than five years during his leadership, despite a diverse population of 107,000.

In a study entitled, "A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014," published in the academic journal PLoS One, Chris Magnus is quoted. He appears to be suggesting that police forces may fundamentally misunderstand the essential psychology of what policing is really about. As a result, forces may be attracting those with the wrong psychological makeup. Chris Magnus declares:

“… You look at some departments’ recruiting materials, and you see guys jumping out of trucks in SWAT gear and people armed with every imaginable weapon… My goal, at least, is to look for people who want to work in my community, not because it’s a place where they think they’re going to be dealing with a lot of violence and hot chases and armed individuals and excitement and an episode of Cops or something… I want them to be here because they’re interested in building a partnership with the community.”

Dr. Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this article was written by Dr. Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall. 


Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community. Desmond, Matthew; Papachristos, Andrew V.; Kirk, David S. American Sociological Review Oct 2016, Vol. 81 Issue 5, p857-876.

Race, Place, and Effective Policing Anthony A. Braga, Rod K. Brunson, and Kevin M. Drakulich. Annual Review of Sociology. 2019. 45:535–55

Command-level Police Officers’ Perceptions of the “War on Cops” and De-policing. Justin Nix ,Scott E. Wolfe &Bradley A. C

Justice Quarterly Volume 35, 2018 - Issue 1 pp33-54 

A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014. Cody T. Ross. PLoS One. 2015; 10(11): e0141854.