The recent police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge have raised the stakes in the national debate over police violence. I’ve been reluctant to write about this topic, because it seems like the moment you say anything remotely critical of the police, you’ve automatically come out on one side of the debate. However, It’s just not that simple. I have friends and family members in the police force, people I love and respect. I live in San Francisco, a major city with one of the most well-trained police forces in the country. I know what good cops are, and I see them every day. I support those cops wholeheartedly. The fact that I think there is a nationwide epidemic in our police forces just underlines my admiration for them. But our police problem will not be solved without frank, open discussion.

DALLAS, TX - JULY 08: Dallas Police Chief David Brown pauses at a prayer vigil following the deaths of five police officers last night during a Black Live Matter march on July 8, 2016 in Dallas, Texas. Five police officers were killed and seven others were injured in a coordinated ambush at a anti-police brutality demonstration in Dallas. Investigators are saying the suspect is 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson of Mesquite, Texas. This is the deadliest incident for U.S. law enforcement since September 11. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Dallas Police Chief David Brown at a prayer vigil following the deaths of five police officers during a Black Live Matter march on July 8, 2016. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The problem is clearly complicated, but it’s often talked about almost exclusively in terms of race. This is understandable; America has deep, longstanding racial troubles, wounds that are reopened with every report of another police shooting of an unarmed black citizen. But the focus on racism when discussing police abuses in America distracts us from another -ism that is rarely discussed: sadism.

Defined as the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others, sadism and sadistic impulses are very common in society. The condition overlaps with so many other psychological problems, however, that it’s difficult to know exactly how common. In fact, there are plenty of mildly sadistic behaviors that fall within the realm of “acceptable” conduct: think schadenfreude, or people who watch car racing for the wipeouts: both involve the derivation of pleasure from someone else’s suffering.

To some extent, like racism, sadism is built into the foundation of our culture. We are a nation of individualists, and we’re encouraged to be fiercely competitive from an early age. The cruelty of children is a well-worn cliché, and the prevalence of bullying in both school and the workplace is evidence that sadism and cruelty have deep roots in our society. Recent research suggests that sadistic impulses may be present at some level in all of us.

Some of us are more prone to these impulses than others; some are pathological. When you were growing up, you probably knew kids (almost always boys – the vast majority of sadists are male) who would gleefully tear the legs off toads at the bus stop, or use the neighbor’s cat for slingshot practice. These behaviors are easy to spot among children, and of course many kids grow out of these impulses. Some never do, however. And as people grow older, they become more adept at hiding things society frowns upon.

Many sadists end up in prison: between 15 and 20 percent of US prison inmates are sociopathic (sociopathy, or psychopathy, is closely related to sadism, and many sociopaths are sadistic as well). But the majority of them end up in the workforce. Sadly, many gravitate toward positions of authority – like police work. Although there are no statistics on this, I don’t need them to describe something that I have observed my entire life: some police officers derive pleasure from intimidating, humiliating and hurting the people they are sworn to protect. Certainly not all of them, not even most of them. But far, far too many.

I grew up just outside of Fort Lauderdale, in the then-small town of Sunrise, Florida. At that time, Sunrise had the distinction of employing more officers per capita than any city in the nation. This was inside of Broward County, so the streets were shared with the then-notorious Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO); you can see some of their exploits here. As a child and young adult, this was my reality: there were police cars on almost every street corner. I quickly learned the three primary rules to follow when dealing with the police: first, avoid interacting with them unless it is absolutely necessary. Second, always be polite, deferential to their authority, and never argue with them in any way. Third, and perhaps most important: keep your hands visible AT ALL TIMES.

I know some of you are bridling at this right now, and I understand why. Make no mistake, I know that not all cops are dangerous. But the point must be made. The focus on race when talking about our police problem has obscured a salient truth: in the United States of America, you don’t have to be black to be afraid of the police.


Focusing on race obscures a salient truth: in America, you don’t have to be black to be afraid of the police. Click to Tweet

True, African Americans have it particularly bad in the US. Last year, The Washington Post created a real-time database to track police shootings, and while there were more whites killed by police in 2015, once you adjust for population the numbers are sobering. African Americans account for 24 percent of citizens killed by the police, but constitute just 13 percent of the U.S. population, meaning black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as whites to be killed by the police.

Clearly, this is an outrage, and it speaks to an institutional racism in our police forces that must be addressed. But we have a problem that goes beyond racism. In America, we have created a special and separate class of citizens, one to which our laws don’t apply. Our police, the defenders of our system of law, are themselves above it.

The problem is systemic: officers that commit crimes are almost entirely insulated from consequences. When an officer is accused of a crime, rightly or wrongly, police invariably close ranks to protect their own. This so-called “blue wall of silence” routinely thwarts proper investigations of officer wrongdoing. Likewise, police are reflexively supported by local and state governments, which historically have been loathe to prosecute cops for any but the most egregious crimes. Despite this protection, three cops are arrested every day in the US; over 1,100 each year. A recent look at conviction and incarceration numbers for officers versus non-sworn citizens is similarly telling: among the general population, felony defendants have an average conviction rate of 68 percent, and their average rate of incarceration is 33 percent. Contrast that with police officers accused of felonies, who have an average conviction rate of 33 percent – less than half that of non-officers. Their conviction rate: a paltry 12 percent.

Police aren’t just a protected class in America; they are arguably a criminal one. The claim that police crimes are perpetrated by a small number of “bad apples” is a common assertion, but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The study cited above analyzed over 6,700 police crimes, and had this to say: “the assumption that only a small group of rogue officers perpetrate crimes….presumably stems from traditional notions and public expectations regarding the straight-laced, law-abiding police persona.“ Meanwhile, the facts fly in the face of these public perceptions. The study concluded “the sheer number of egregious cases constitutes prima facie evidence that these are not isolated events.”

I’ve written here recently about the Mean World Syndrome, a tendency for people who watch television to hold a darker, more malevolent view of the world. We manufacture fear in our culture – and it’s not just our violence-ridden movies and television shows. The news media uses it to season their 24-hour news cycle, guaranteeing them ratings and the continual flow of ad dollars; if it bleeds, it leads. Politicians use fear to frighten a few extra votes out of their constituencies, running on law and order platforms that paint petty criminals as predators. And lest we fail to mention, the gun lobby uses it to hammer home their central message: You Are Not Safe.

As a result, fear is endemic in modern America – and cops feel it, too. This is another thing that is rarely discussed, and it may be the saddest aspect of the events in Dallas and Baton Rouge: cops are scared out there. They watch the same shows as you do, they see the same movies, and suffer under the same myopic, dysfunctional news media. Although it’s probably the last thing the average officer is likely to admit, I’ve got a strong hunch that many of them are afraid of the people in their communities. Why would they be any different? If their trigger fingers are itchy, we truly should not be surprised.

If we are to solve this problem, we’ve got to do more than address racism. We’ve got to do more than reform gun policy. We have to acknowledge that our society has been poisoned with fear, and take steps to ratchet down the violence and aggression that suffocates our popular culture. And we have to recognize the sickness that is alive within our police forces, without  demonizing all cops. This is crucial. We rely on these people, and we can’t afford to feed the rift that has grown between the police and the communities they belong to.

There are a few things we should explore. We could easily test police recruits for sadistic tendencies, and keep borderline cases away from public-facing assignments. We should also consider paying cops a real wage for the work they do – it seems to work in San Francisco. We pay (and train) our cops well here, and despite the recent furor over the police shooting of Mario Woods, historically we’ve had few problems of the sort that plague the rest of the nation. By contrast, many American police officers are working for near poverty-level wages. I wasn’t able to uncover any stats correlating police pay rates with police violence in my research, but I would hardly be surprised to find a link between the two.

We find ourselves on a dark path today. If we are ever to emerge into the light, and unknot the issues that divide us from one another – blacks from whites, cops from citizens – we need to talk about it. We have to put in the effort to find solutions that work for everyone, not just cops, or whites, or people of color. We are all Americans, and we need to start acting that way.