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From the police academy to active duty, police officers are in contact with a hidden curriculum teaching hegemonic masculinity to novices. Physical displays of masculinity and bravery to face danger is a central characteristic that defines the ‘macho’ police officer.”—Rafael Alcadipani, Pandemic and Macho Organizations, National Library of Medicine.

 The city of Memphis, Tennessee released videos of a January 7 traffic stop that led to five police officers being fired and charged with the murder of 29-year-old Black motorist Tyre Nichols. This is the latest in the history of police violence aimed at reportedly law-abiding civilians.

Many experts have pointed to a police culture of aggression and toxic masculinity as a contributing factors.

Let me begin by saying that I have no personal axe to grind against the police, and I respect and admire the dedication and service many police officers throughout America bring to their communities.

But policing in America is a pervasive and ongoing problem.

The following is an excerpt from my book, Macho Men: How Toxic Masculinity Harms Us All and What To Do About it.

Toxic masculinity is distinctively prevalent in police organizations in America, which are predominantly masculine institutions. American police culture’s emphasis has been on virility, and toughness, with assumptions of a heterosexual makeup in which homosexuality is perceived as perversion.

The masculine ethos is performed in police storytelling with their organizations, with a core feature of the use of violence and force when facing “bad guys” and the need to prove the policeman’s manliness. These stories construct a heroic policy identity. The use of physicality is perceived by police as the main tool they possess, rather than emotional intelligence or negotiation skills. Moreover, there is the necessity to display “tough and forceful” behaviors, also reflective of an aggressive, competitive, and performance-drivenleadership style.

The Council on Foreign Relations in their study found the following:

  • Other advanced democracies organize, fund, train, arm, and discipline their police officers differently than the United States does.
  • The United States struggles with police brutality and tense relations between law enforcement and minority communities.
  • The United States far exceeds most wealthy democracies in killings by police, and officers seldom face legal consequences.

According to a 2013 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report, police academies on average spent the most time—seventy-one hours—on firearm skills, compared with twenty-one hours on de-escalation training (which teaches how to use conversation and other tactics to calm a situation without using force) and crisis-intervention strategies. In Germany, firearms training focuses on how to avoid using force. Japanese officers are trained to use martial arts.

Law Professor Frank Rudy Cooper explains in his study published in the Columbia Journal of Gender & Law, “Who’s The Man? Masculine Studies, Terry Stops and Police Training”: “Policemen have nearly unique powers to make others acknowledge them as ‘the man’ while ostensibly merely performing their duties. The short answer is that officers may get ‘macho’ with civilians. Specifically, they may enact command presence in situations where it only serves to boost the officer’s masculine esteem. To enact command presence is to take charge of a situation. It involves projecting an aura of confidence and decisiveness. It is justified by the need to control dangerous suspects. A situation that does not justify enacting command presence is what I call a ‘masculinity contest.’”

Cooper goes on to say that “a masculinity contest is a face-off between men where one party can bolster his masculine esteem by dominating the other. A prototypical masculinity contest is a bar fight. Men will glare at each other and ratchet up their challenges until one party backs down or is subdued. Male police officers may sometimes be tempted to turn encounters with male civilians into masculinity contests.”

Using data from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California, a 2008 study found that male officers were three times more likely to commit unwarranted shootings than female officers. Additionally, white male police officers were 57% more likely than Latino male officers to commit such a shooting. 

The Militarization of Police Departments

The movement away from the concept of community policing has been in concert with the militarization of police departments, aided by Federal grants.

Radley Balko describes in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop federal incentives for police departments to pursue America’s endless failed war on drugs. In addition, there is a thriving business industry of trainers and consultants who encourage police to see their work as a battlefield.

The warrior narrative for police forces has been fed by the flood of funding and surplus military equipment made available to police departments following the terror attacks on 9/11. Over

Over the last three decades, the militarization of police forces in America has grown exponentially. The result of this militarization is that the local police take on the appearance, armament and behavior of soldiers at war—with the public. And those who encounter militarized police, whether in their daily lives or at a demonstration, can end up dead or injured because of an officer’s militarized mindset.

The Pentagon’s 1033 program allows police forces to purchase Department of Defense technology—a startling amount of heavy-duty, military-grade hardware. Between 1998 and 2014, the dollar value of military hardware sent to police departments increased incredibly from $9.4 million to a startling $796.8 million.

White Nationalists’ and Right-Wing Extremists’ Infiltration of Police Forces

An FBI report has expressed alarm about the infiltration of police forces by white supremacists groups and its impact on police abuse and tolerance of racism, the unredacted version of a previously circulated document revealed.

A FBI threat assessment report released by Congressman Jamie Raskin, who was then Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee highlighted the problem in local police departments in America.

The report states that as early as 2006, “self-initiated efforts by individuals, particularly among those already within law enforcement ranks, volunteered their professional resources to white supremacist causes with which they sympathize.”

The report goes on to state “Having personnel within law enforcement agencies has historically been and will continue to be a desired asset for white supremacist groups seeking to anctipate law enforcement interst in and actions against them. The report notes in a seciont that was previously redacted warned of “factors that might generated sympathies among existing law enforcement personnel and cause them to volunteer their support to white supremacist causes,” which could include hostility toward developments in U.S. domestic and foreign policies “that conflict with white supremacist ideologies.”

The Warrior Cop Training

Retired Army lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman is known for being one of America’s best-known independent police trainers—and one of the foremost exponents of the “warrior cop” mindset.

Another police training company, RealWorld Tactical’s training regimen reflects the warrior culture by preaching that police work is inherently violent, and that officers represent the last opportunity for law and order in an increasingly dangerous society.

“They are taught that they live in an intensely hostile world that is quite literally gunning for them,” writes Seth Stoughton, a law professor and former police officer, in an article for the Harvard Law Review, “Death, they are told, is constantly a single, small misstep away.”

Stoughton says, “ Hesitation can be fatal. So, officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized, to not wait until the last second because the last second may be too late.” But what about the consequences of a mistake, Stoughton asks, “after all, that dark object in the suspect’s hands could be a wallet, not a gun.”

Officers are taught that the risks of mistakes are less—far less than the risks of hesitation. A common phrase used among police is “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

Final Thoughts

The Tyre Nichols, George Floyd and other similar incidents shine a spotlight on a problem with policing in America—the police culture infused with toxic masculinity—along with mixed messages to the public of their core purpose and methods.