Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.

Stop The Cycle

Who Is Dangerous In High Stress Situations?

Law Enforcement and military personnel face dangerous situations daily.

Posted Dec 31, 2014

Man behind bars

man behind bars

It is possible to be fully supportive of law enforcement and the military everywhere, which I am, but also push for changes that will improve both organizations. In cases such as we have seen in the news, only a full investigation of the facts can determine if errors were made. If there are determinations that there were errors, corrections are needed and will take place because of the vigorous dialogues taking place from multiple points of view.

The recent events under scrutiny and discussion involve the killing of unarmed persons suspected of law violations while being arrested and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraibe and secret prisons holding suspected terrorists after 9-11.   How far can an official body go in the name of law to harm another person who is a prisoner or is only suspected of a crime, but "may" pose a danger to others? Where is that line?  

Use of force will necessarily always be part of law enforcement, military and corrections when circumstances call for it.  However, not all people are capable of distinguishing where that line is when they are under stress. Additionally, society may be in the process of re-examining where that line is and under what circumstances, making these decisions even more difficult for an individual to make in a split second in a high stress event. Experience, training, and oversite may also be important factors in these situations.

In 1971 at Stanford University, Dr. Zimbardo began the, now infamous, prison experiment. He divided a group of students into prisoners and guards and set up a makeshift prison in the basement of one of the University buildings. Everyone knew that this was an experiment. The experiment was planned for two weeks, but was stopped after 6 days because the "guards" became too sadistic and the "prisoners" became too depressed. Some guards did not participate in humiliating prisoners, but did not stop others from doing so. The students were caught in a time warp where they thought what they were doing was acceptable because there were no outside influences to say, "No, that is not OK." Finally, the experiment was stopped by a professor not involved in the experiment.

Dr. Stanley Milgram wanted to know what kinds of people yielded to the pressure of the Nazi culture. In his experiment, researchers in lab coats at Yale University instructed participants to deliver increasingly painful electric shocks to other "participants" to "teach them through punishment." Sixty-five percent of the participants continued to deliver what they thought were electric shocks for incorrect answers despite the screams from the "fake" participants. Replications of Dr. Milgram's experiment have found that about 65% of ordinary people yield to the pressure of the authority figure even when it is contrary to their morals and about 35% do not.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Saturday, May 8, 2004, Dr. Zimbardo analyzed the Abu Ghraib abuses and found that the prison environment was set for maltreatment to happen. The prison had a weak leader and it was within the prison.  It was a "secret place" that was not visited often by administrators. The prison was understaffed and undertrained and lacked basic services for staff. They were under the stress of fearing insurgent attacks constantly. They lacked discipline and standard operating procedures. The situation continued to worsen until a soldier pointed out the egregious nature of the activities within the prison. Prisons where the balance of power is so unequal are very likely to become abusive. In the New York Times, May 6, 2004, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, stated that preventing problems like those found at Abu Ghraib requires discipline, training, and outside monitoring.

Research has identified 7 conditions that make an organization more likely to experience excessive use of force when there is high levels of power over others, such as law enforcement, military, and corrections and low levels of training and supervision.

1. Weak or absent leadership

2. Seeing others as less than human

3. Lack of discipline and training

4. Not having oversight by an outside entity.

5. Secrecy

6. Being exposed to brutality

7. Being part of a group with similar beliefs about the legitimacy of using violence in certain situations as a means to an end

Training on the risk factors for risk of excessive use of force could become a part of standard training protocols for law enforcement, corrections, and the military. Additionally, screening candidates for these jobs for propensity for excessive violence when under stress could become a standard screening mechanism for those applying to enter these fields

More Posts