Fight or Flight Instinct Complicates Compliance to Police Orders

When police expect individuals to comply to their orders, they are ignoring one of our most fundamental psychological realities.

In the wake of law enforcement shootings one of the most common responses by police and their supporters is that the person who was shot brought it on themselves by failing to comply with orders given to them. However failure to comply is a perfectly reasonable expectation for people having a stress response to police interactions.

From PsychologyTools.com:

“The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee.”

Biological organisms were programmed billions of years ago to fight or flee when they encountered threats to their well being, such as uniformed individuals with a whole belt full of weapons who may kill you no matter what, or at the very least take you to jail – which is something you should obviously experience a stress response to. Our default programming is to fight or flee in exactly this kind of situation, and when compliance runs contrary to that programming, it is not reasonable to expect it.

Of course there are people who have better self-control, who are not entirely subservient to their default programming and instincts, but that is not going to be normal for most of the people police deal with. Those people are probably at the margins of society or belong to a regularly targeted group. Their struggles have robbed them of the emotional tools for that sort of self control, and at the same time, they (or those close to them) probably have experiences which make them more scared of the interaction and its potential consequences. Even if the average person can circumvent their instincts to comply precisely on command, that doesn’t mean we can expect it from the people who police usually deal with.

Alternately, this is also why some cops shoot people for no reason, and some don’t. Same psychological response, fight or flee. Police are trained to fight, and often given the benefit of the doubt in any situation. This emboldens the same psychological effect in police, who almost always choose to fight, and individuals who they interact with, who more often than not are trying to flee when they are killed.

These kinds of shootings are not a bug in the system, they are its defining feature. They point to a very real need to reconsider whether armed domestic soldiers going out looking for a fight is really a good idea. The show and use of force by police creates a circle of violence with no resolve. It perpetually escalates the violence within this cycle, leading to more crime and more killing. If this is our only solution to social problems, then it is a solution worse than the problems themselves. Policing creates a situation in which the fight or flight response is being triggered by two different groups, but one of them has an enormous advantage. This is not a reasonable way to keep peace, this is terrorism calling itself justice.

How would a police free community work?

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