Police Violence: Violence Begets Violence

Matthew H. Logan Ph.D. 

Retired RCMP Officer and Psychologist

On July 18, 1964 riots erupted in Harlem, New York after the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old African American male by a white police officer.  In the following seven years more than 750 race riots erupted in numerous American cities, leaving over 200 dead and injuring nearly 13,000 people.

This isn’t a perspective about history repeating itself, nor is it about race relations.  It is about violence and how violence affects policing.  Finally it’s a police officer’s perspective on violence.

A New Climate of Hate and Distrust

As I read comments posted since the Ferguson, Missouri riots I was struck with the perception of impending violence as a result of being detained or arrested by police.  Whether I can validate their experience from my reality is immaterial - this is their reality and I can only imagine that there are thousands of other people that could express the same sentiments and emotion. 

To understand the present current of violence that underlies at least one strata of society police need to, first of all, listen to the perceptions expressed within the social media and attempt to understand the origins of such fear.  Secondly, there must be a response by the police.  The response must be empathic, educational and tactical.

An Empathic response

If I could be you, if you could be me for just one hour

If we could find a way to get inside each other's mind, mmmm

If you could see you through my eyes instead of your ego

I believe you'd be surprised to see that you've been blind, mmmm

Joe South, 1969 (sung by Elvis Presley)

There is a utopian dream in most of us and we strive to live the motto “walk a mile in his/her shoes”. Empathy is part of the human condition and it cuts through the differences we may have.  As a psychologist I understand the value of an empathic response.  I wish it was always an effective strategy but I have often had to recommend a tactical strategy in order to preserve life.  All of our police have been trained in a use of force model that begins with this approach.  It’s actually quite amazing that police can successfully use this intervention in negotiation without any escalation in 87%- 90% of incidents of violence or impending violence (FBI HOBAS, 2001).  The small percentage of violent incidents involving police that make the news is actually a credit to the successful intervention and empathic response by police.

It is also interesting to note that it is approx. 5% of society that commit over 45% of the violent crime (Falk ‘et al’, 2013’ Tillman, 1987; Tracy ‘et al’, 1985) and it is often this group that hit the headlines.  This group is not just an array of marginalized, downtrodden, misunderstood victims of social decay.  They are often the predatory, parasitic and psychopathic element of humankind who are out to gratify their need for stimulation and augment their need for personal power by taking on the people who seem to have the power…the police.  These are not just angry citizens but are often people drawn to violence like moths to a flame.  They revel in the chaos and bask in the aftermath having met their needs by looting and surviving to fight another day.  In other eras they may have been heroes of the battle but in civilized society they are the criminal element.  Not only do they perpetrate violent and illegal acts but they incite others who are young, naïve, and suggestible to do the same. Granted, many represented in this group have come from unfortunate and devastating circumstances; however they have made choices to be rule breakers.  When they make these choices it is not the role of police to enter a therapeutic relationship with them.

It is not easy to be empathic and sensitive in the face of impending violence.  As a matter of fact there are times in policing where empathy and sensitivity can get you hurt.  These tend to be times, however, when you have exhausted the usefulness of an open handed approach and have resorted to action using “as much force as is necessary” to effect an arrest.  Violence begets violence and the response to violence must be consistently intervention.  I have had at least 3 incidents in my 28 yrs. as a cop where I was fighting for my life.  It may have been difficult to see, had these incidents been videotaped, that I was focused on intervention. Although that was always the ultimate goal, I would say that I used a “controlled violence” to save myself and arrest the individual who was intent on doing me harm.  In one case the subject was intent on doing harm to another person, in another it was someone intent on harming self, and the other was intent on harming me in an effort to be free.

As a crisis (hostage) negotiator I have many times used advanced empathy skills to defuse a situation. I have for many years taught these skills to negotiators and have a firm belief that this is where we begin as police in our intervention with potentially violent situations.  Often the situation deteriorates in seconds and the officer moves through the use of force continuum at the same pace resulting in the use of deadly force. Believe me, it is much easier to “armchair quarterback” the decisions from the sidelines than on the field.

An Educational response

There is so often the “untold story” in policing and the public only gets what the media provides. The Ferguson riots woke me up to the real world of fear and violence and to the perception of police by many in society.  It also awakened me to why the untold story, the police perspective, is never aired:

The story is never told because “as police we don’t want to appear defensive”

Providing the media accurate information in a timely manner is the goal of the police media liaison officer.  Having a Chief of Police or a senior officer refute inaccurate media information should be another key piece of the process.  In an incident where media reports and video have already convicted the police, there should be at least the reminder that these reports are just part of the story and a thorough investigation will be completed.  Police silence or “the matter is before the courts” type of statements leave people thinking that the police have something to hide and reinforces the media portrayal of “bully cops”. The majority of people do not follow up the story weeks or months later to learn “the rest of the story”. What they see when the story first airs is what is stored in their memory and banked in their perception of the police.

I would like to see a more open dialogue in the media.  The major networks should have women and men that have actually been in the trenches and know what it’s like out there when violence is center stage. Often a retired law enforcement person who is not a spokesperson for any police force and who offers his or her opinion gives a more heartfelt perspective and can turn the prism and let a different light shine through.  The “blue light” of officer professionalism and compassion has not been well seen lately, if ever.  Networks having some young, attractive person with Psy.D. or Ph.D. behind their name explain human behavior from their recent doctoral class does little for understanding the culture and context of behavior. 

We must acknowledge that in policing there is also that small percentage of officers who are prone to use excessive force as a result of their personality traits and response to life stressors.  There must be an acknowledgment that lack of empathy, antisocial tendencies, narcissism, impulsivity, and low frustration tolerance are elements associated with excessive force within the ranks (Scrivner, 1994). There must be a clear statement of acknowledgment and of a concerted effort to screen, monitor, train, supervise, and yes, eliminate those recidivists of excessive force.

The story is never told because “as police we don’t want to appear defenseless”

Strength in the face of adversity is paramount for a police officer as he/she is the defender of the right. Even so, vulnerability is paramount for a police officer and allows them to stay healthy in their minds, wealthy in having warm relationships, and wise in knowing that there is Someone greater than me. 

Many years ago as I studied character qualities of the ideal police officer, I came across two words that just fit into one word to describe a key character quality.  It is the word “tendertoughness” and it almost doesn’t need to be defined as it speaks for itself.  The police officer who has tendertoughness is one who has clear boundaries but reaches out to take the hand of one in need.  It is the officer that goes from arresting a violent spouse abuser to crying with an elderly woman whose husband was just taken away by ambulance.  It is the officer who fights for her life subduing a drug crazed man intent on violence and then takes the next call and finds a frightened child who needs a long hug after spending hours alone with no parent in sight. It is the officer who attends the accidental shooting of a child by another child and goes home and hugs his own children like he will never let go of them.

In my years as a police officer I learned from those situations that still bring tears to my eyes as I remember each face.  Those memories have taken me on a long journey of lifelong learning.  My experience has taught me things I could not have learned in a text book or a university classroom.  Certainly I could not have learned the world of policing from TV by watching The Shield or the world of police psychology from watching Criminal Minds or CSI.  Unfortunately these programs are the source of knowledge on policing for the vast majority of people.

The story is never told because “we’ve never told the story”

Maybe it’s time to start giving the police perspective on things.  Let’s educate the average person on why police do things the way they do and why they do not do some things that are expected of them. Transparency is a word that shows up often as you read the Mission, Vision and Values of our police departments. It is a good word and not just a word to use in the internal processes of a department but also in how community and police interact. Obviously there will be things about an investigation that cannot be divulged but let’s start explaining what can be disclosed.

In a new era where police can tell the real news via social media without waiting for a news agency to spin the story or sensationalize the truth, they have the option of being their own news agency.  I believe there is an appetite for people to hear some good news policing stories.

A Tactical response

Violence begets violence.  We see this in our history of civilization, in our social learning, and even in our genetic makeup.  We are seeing the effects of this phenomenon presently in our world and in our society.  It is more pronounced in certain jurisdictions where specific violent incidents have spawned more violence. 

FBI Director James Comey indicates the spike in violent crime now seen in some of the larger US cities is at least in part the result of what is being called the “Ferguson effect” — the increased scrutiny of officers in the wake of several highly publicized police brutality cases, including the shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo., last year. This scrutiny, Comey says, is causing police to be more cautious and criminals to be more emboldened (USA Today Editorial Board. November 12, 2015)

I applaud Director Comey’s guts to stand up and support the troops and in sounding the alarm about “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement”, something seen only by the courageous in the political arena of upper police management.  There is absolutely no doubt that the recent show of distaste, if not hatred of police, will affect the way police do their job.  It could be the effect of police walking softer so as not to become the next star of a YouTube video.  This will likely result in an increase in crime in general; however, I do not believe the “Ferguson effect” will create an increase of crime that will be picked up by research as crime rate is based on the reporting of crime and police files.  There are 2 things that militate against a “statistical representation” of crime rising as a result of the “Ferguson effect”. 

The first is that as the distrust of police increases; the reporting of crime decreases.  This phenomenon follows the attitude of “why report it to the police; they’re not going to do anything anyway” or for the more militant and disenfranchised: “C’mon Man…the cops? ...no way am I even talking to them”.

Secondly, a certain percentage of crime stats are self-generated by police and if the “Ferguson effect” denotes that police will get involved less for fear of a formal inquiry, then the crime rate should decrease based on less statistical reporting of arrest and sheer file numbers.

Police may be hesitant to engage in enforcement out of fear of being charged with improper behavior. In certain jurisdictions they may feel “under siege” on one side and “unsupported” on the other. Leadership must understand the climate and not bend to political pressure by throwing officers under the bus for doing their job and simply using as much force as is necessary to preserve life.

Individual officers need to be more tactically aware of the threat that accompanies fear in society.  We have seen violence against police that is often related to the perception that it is a “righteous violence” that responds to alleged wrongs perpetrated by the police.

My greatest concern today is for the safety of police officers that are being ambushed at a higher rate than ever before.  Although we have had higher levels of officers murdered in the line of duty, we have never seen as many being ambushed in cold, calculated and instrumental acts of violence. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has just released a report analyzing violence against police in the past 2 decades.  It is empirical evidence that shows the rise in violent ambushes of police (Fachner & Thorkildsen, 2015).

We are in an era when the word “profiling” has a negative connotation.  It is only in the realm of racial profiling where this should exist.  Let me be clear that the profiling of dangerous individuals in society, regardless of race, must be in effect to protect our citizens and our protectors of those citizens. It is not just police that are under attack but includes other authority figures within the criminal justice system, namely judges, prosecutors and corrections officials.  Police must first identify these individuals, and then develop tactical plans to monitor them so as to be forewarned and forearmed against their attacks which are often in the form of ambush. This is part of intelligence led policing that puts the focus on the 5% of criminals who are the prime perpetrators of violence in society and those who because of psychopathic traits or overvalued ideas may enact violence to further their own narcissistic agenda or to fight and die for a cause.

The shooting of an individual by the police is not “violence toward citizens by police” and the shooting of police by an individual is not “violence toward police by citizens”.  The common denominator in both scenarios is that “individuals” choose to act in a violent manner and the police are caught in this two way street.


Dr. Matt Logan completed his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia while he was an active police officer. As the first Operational Psychologist in Major Crime, S/Sgt (ret.) Logan has been involved as a consultant to Serious Crime Sections, Undercover Unit, Interview Team, Child Exploitation, and Crisis Negotiation Teams. Dr. Logan co-founded the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Behavioural Science Unit in Vancouver and continues to work in this area designing and delivering training, providing case consultation, and working with the “known” offender.

Address correspondence to:

Matthew H. Logan Ph.D. HALO Forensic Behavioural Specialists P.O. Box 41 Rideau Ferry, Ontario K0G1W0 Canada  Email: mattlogan6@gmail.com



HOBAS (Hostage Barricade Database System) Statistics FBI retrieved 2001.

Fachner, George, and Zoë Thorkildsen. (2015). Ambushes of Police: Environment, Incident Dynamics, and the Aftermath of Surprise Attacks Against Law Enforcement. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Falk, O., Wallinius, M., Lundström, S., Frisell, T., Anckarsäter, H.,  Kerekes,N.  The 1 % of the population accountable for 63 % of all violent crime convictions. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 2013; DOI: 10.1007/s00127-013-0783-y

Scrivner, E. M. (1994).  The Role of Police Psychology in Controlling Excessive Force. U.S. Department of Justice.

Tracy, P.E., Wolfgang, M.E. & Figlio, R.M. (1985). Delinquency careers in two birth cohorts.

Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice

Tillman, R. (1987). Prevalence and incidence of arrest among adult males in California. Criminology, 25: 561–580. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1987.tb00811.x

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