Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Pinpointing responsibility for Russian atrocities in Bucha


In November I wrote a blog post asking the question, "What organization and what commanders have directed the campaign of atrocity, murder, rape, mutilation, torture, and abduction in Ukraine? Is there good investigative reporting on where orders for these unspeakable atrocities and crimes against humanity are coming from?" Now, thanks to some stupendous reporting by the New York Times, we know part of the answer. In Bucha, the Times has established "a mountain of evidence" based on painstaking analysis of digital and phone evidence that major atrocities and murder were committed by one elite Russian regiment, the 234th Regiment (link).

The Times identified the 234th Regiment, a paratrooper unit based in the city of Pskov in western Russia, as the main culprit in the Yablunska Street killings. Airborne units like this are considered among the best trained and equipped in the Russian military. Evidence of the 234th's involvement includes military equipment, uniform badges, radio chatter and packing slips on munitions crates. (New York Times, December 28, A6)

The reporting is remarkably detailed, providing names and photos of members of the 234th who used cell phones to call home to Russia that had been taken from murdered residents of Bucha. "We found the soldiers. One of them is Vladimir Vasilyev, posing here in a paratrooper uniform. He used the phones of two victims: Vitalii Karpenko; and Ivan Skyba, who survived."

Here are four incidents the Times was able to document.

March 4, 2022 When Russian forces arrived in Bucha on Yablunska Street, a group of Ukrainian men who had been guarding a checkpoint decided to hide inside a nearby home. But Russian soldiers carrying out a house-to-house clearing operation found them. Neighbors Tetiana and Serhii Chmut watched as Russian soldiers marched the guards, and the resident who housed them, to a Russian base and forced them onto their knees with their hands behind their heads. Russian soldiers executed seven of them. Another man was already lying there dead. Drone footage filmed the same day of the killings captures the men's bodies lying in the courtyard of the base.

March 5 When Iryna Filkina, a 52-year-old mother, rounded the corner onto Yablunska Street with her bike, the gunner in a Russian armored vehicle aimed his cannon at her and fired, killing her. A commanding officer was overseeing the operation just 75 yards away. Sheltering in an adjacent home were Iryna Abramova (above left), her father and her husband, Oleh. When Russian soldiers barded into their home, searching for men of military age, Iryna pleaded with them, explaining that Oleh was not in the military. They dragged him into the street and executed him. Oleh was among at least eight people killed by Russian soldiers in around three hours on March 5.

March 5 Russian soldiers moved farther down Yablunska Street, toward an intersection that was a pathway to Kyiv. Armored vehicles and machine gunners took up positions to protect the rest of the convoy. Anyone who crossed their path became a target. Drone footage of the scene shows Russian soldiers, and the bodies of their victims piling up on Yablunska Street. Meanwhile, Viktor Shatylo was documenting the killings from his nearby home. His videos and photographs reveal some of the victims killed by those Russian soldiers: 68-year-old Volodymyr Brovchenko and, in a van, Zhanna Kameneva, who was trying to escape Bucha with her neighbors Maria, Tamila, and 14-year-old Anna.

March 18 As they moved into homes along Yablunska Street, soldiers from the same Russian military unit continued to kill residents and neighbors weeks into the occupation of Bucha. Volodymyr Lisovskyi was living next door to Russian soldiers and filmed them as they executed at least three men on March 18. In his video, two of the men, Dmytro Shkirenkov and Oleksandr Chumak, can be seen on their knees, surrounded by Russian soldiers. The third victim, Maksym Kireev, is already lying dead on the ground. Drone footage captured three hours after Volodymyr filmed the scene shows the three men lying motionless on the ground in the same location.

This is a truly amazing effort of forensic journalism, and a huge contribution to the question of how to hold Russia responsible for its war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine.

The Times has produced a series of documentary videos based on this research that are available on Youtube (link). The video includes this horrific and honest assessment at 3:10:

These killings were not random acts of violence, but part of a methodical, planned, and lethal operation that may amount to crimes against humanity.

It is inescapable from the evidence provided in this investigation that these atrocities were indeed planned and ordered by commanding officers. The world needs to know: whose orders led to the methodical killings and other atrocities in Bucha? These are crimes of war, and the commanders must be called to account. That much is obvious. What the Times investigative report demonstrates is that there is a very broad range of evidence on the basis of which war crimes investigators can assess responsibility.

It is interesting to learn that the 234th Regiment is already subject to sanctions by the United States Department of State, based on this list of crimes.

The Department of State 28.06.2022 is designating three Russian Federation military units, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division and its subordinate 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment, as well as the 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, pursuant to E.O. 14024 Section 1(a)(i) because these entities operate or have operated in the defense and related materiel sector of the Russian Federation economy. Multiple, credible reports have documented summary executions and other unlawful killings of civilians, beatings of detained persons, and destruction of civilian property by Russia’s forces in Bucha, Ukraine this year. In March 2022, Russia’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division and its 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment encamped on Bucha, Ukraine’s Yablunska Street, which became an epicenter of violence against civilians and other human rights abuses in Bucha. According to credible reports, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division has been directly implicated in violence against unarmed civilians in Bucha, as well as beating detained persons. Credible reports also indicate that next to a wall of the 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment’s base on Yablunska Street in Bucha, Russia’s forces executed numerous detained Ukrainian citizens. According to credible reports, the 234th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment has also been directly implicated in the destruction of civilian property such as homes in Bucha. The 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade also operated in the vicinity of Yablunska Street and other locations in Bucha. The 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade has been described as the “butchers of Bucha.” According to credible reports, while operating in Bucha, this unit killed numerous civilians, detained civilians, beat detained civilians, seized and damaged civilian homes and property. (link)

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Sherwood Eddy’s treatment of Marx


Sherwood Eddy was an American Protestant activist and missionary in the early twentieth century. (Here is a brief biography and bibliography of Eddy; link.) He was educated in elite American institutions but acquired a deep empathy for the less-well-off members of society, both in the US and Asia. He was drawn to Communism, though never a member of the CP. Eddy explicitly identified himself as a Christian socialist. In 1926 he engaged in a debate in Moscow on the subject, "wherein lies the essence of the present religion and is it compatible with communism?". In 1934 he was invited to participate in an important symposium, “The meaning of Marx”, with Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Morris Raphael Cohen, and Sidney Hook (link). In 1936 he co-founded a cooperative-based reform of farming for sharecroppers in the US south, with strong commitment to racial equality. 

What is striking in Eddy's contribution to the Marx symposium is the depth and detail of his knowledge of Marx’s economic theories. Eddy summarizes Marx's substantive social and economic theories under three topics: his dialectical method of analysis of history; his labor theory of value and surplus-value; and his theory of class conflict as the fundamental driver of historical change (6). Under exposition of the second point Eddy offers a reasonable summary of Marx's main ideas of accumulation and exploitation. He ends this section with a denunciation of capitalism, and he writes favorably of revolution and the "dictatorship of the proletariat". 

Eddy's interpretation of social change remains "religious" in a sense; he understands Communism as a unifying belief system capable of motivating the masses of the population.

Russia has achieved what has hitherto been known only at rare periods in history, the experience of almost a whole people living under a unified philosophy of life. All life is focused in a central purpose. It is directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation that life seems to have supreme significance. It releases a flood of joyous and strenuous activity. The new philosophy has the advantage of seeming to be simple, clear, understandable, all-embracing and practical. (2)

Further, he contrasts the ideological unity and purity of Soviet society with the degeneration of values in western capitalist society:

As surely as Soviet Russia has become united, we of the West have witnessed a philosophic decadence and disintegration. Where feudalism once united the world, capitalism has divided it by the competitive anarchy of a loose individualism. Not organized society but the insecure individual is now the unit where every man is for himself. The economics of profit conflict with the aims of culture. The gain of the few is pitted against the welfare of the many. This whole laissez-faire philosophy of life breeds competitive strife between individuals, classes, races and nations. (4)

Also striking is Eddy’s own inclination towards the need for thorough-going class revolution. In 1934 Eddy’s intellectual support for Communism was evident.

Is the system just? Must it continue? No! Marx shows the masses a way out. It is a way, he tells them, grounded in science and in natural law. It is bound to win, for the very stars in their courses are fighting for them. By some mystic and incomprehensible "dialectic process," by a supposedly scientific theory of value and of surplus value it is all being worked out for them. They do not need to understand it. They must believe that they are being exploited and join in the crusade for their own emancipation. (12)

Revolutions are almost inevitably destructive. They occur only when evolutionary progress to justice is blocked by the class in possession and power, when the hard crust of the status quo restrains the molten lava of discontent until the volcano of revolution bursts into eruption. Nearly always the possessing class is blinded by its own self-interest and class ethics of property "rights," so that it cannot see in time the injustice of the system which seems hallowed by custom and tradition. (16)

According to the Marxian formula, as the advance guard of the working class, a Communist Party must be organized with centralized power, under iron discipline, with a single mind and will. The sole purpose of this party must be to prepare for and direct the coming revolution which Marx sees as the only solution of the class struggle. No class has ever been known to surrender its special privileges and share them equally with the dispossessed, unless it was forced to do so.... Once the state has been seized the workers are bidden to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat under the direction of the vanguard of the Communist Party. The party then seeks to make the revolution permanent and continuing until all the members of the ruling and possessing classes are deprived of power. (17)

At the end of the essay Eddy summarizes points of agreement and disagreement with Marx. Most important is this point:

I. I do not believe that violent revolution is inevitable, nor do I believe that it is desirable in itself as Marx almost makes it. When once violence is adopted as a method in an inevitable and "continuing revolution," when to Marx's philosophy is added Lenin's false dictum that "great problems in the lives of nations are solved only by force," most serious consequences follow wherever communism is installed under a dictatorship or prepared for by violent methods. This shuts the gates of mercy on mankind. In Soviet Russia all prosperous farmers are counted kulaks, and the kulak becomes the personal devil or scapegoat of the system, as does the Jew in Nazi Germany. Intellectuals and engineers are all too easily accused of deliberate sabotage, of being "wreckers," class enemies, etc. When this philosophy--that great problems are solved "only by violence"--is applied, then trials, shootings and imprisonment follow in rapid succession. Hatred and violence mean wide destructive and incalculable human suffering. (27)

Thus, though I acknowledge my real debt to Marx, I do not count myself a Marxist. I have stated elsewhere: the reasons which would make impossible my acceptance of the system as practised in Soviet Russia under the dictatorship: Its denial of political liberty, the violence and compulsion of a continuing revolution, and the dogmatic atheism and anti-religious zeal required of every member of the Communist Party. (29)


Here he draws out precisely the implication of totalitarianism contained in Stalin's version of the "dictatorship of the proletariat". The war on the kulaks -- the Holodomor -- was going on as this symposium took place (1933-34) (link).

It is useful to distinguish between  the content of Marx's political economy and his sociology of capitalism, on the one hand, and the political manifestos, slogans, and party politics of Marxism and communism, on the other. Marx's theory of capitalism as a class-based system of exploitation is compatible with multiple possible remedies, including democratic socialism. Both sets of issues come up in the 1934 symposium. Eddy's essay here makes plain the urgency with which intellectuals committed to social justice were searching for answers, and Marx (and Lenin) represented persuasive and compelling ideas about a blueprint for comprehensive change. But strikingly, Eddy — unlike his contemporaries in the English democratic socialist movement — had not yet moved as far as his English contemporaries in attempting to imagine a democratic socialist solution (link).

(George Novack's lecture on American radical intellectuals in the 1930s, delivered in 1967, provides some context for Eddy's political orientation, though Eddy's name does not appear in Novack's lecture; link. Novack was a longtime leader of the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyist alternative to the American Communist Party.)


Saturday, December 24, 2022

Lies and myths in the social world


An earlier post mentioned the topic of folk psychology and its relation to cognitive science. Scholars like Paul Churchland question whether there is a realistic correspondence between the properties identified by our folk-psychological understanding of each other and the real underlying cognitive processes on the basis of which we operate.

My interest here is a parallel question for social knowledge: is there a similar situation at work in our ordinary representations of the social world? Are the concepts and causal hypotheses through which we describe and experience the social world reasonable approximations to the way the social world actually works, or do they lead to distortions and falsifications of the nature of the social world? (Here is an earlier post that raises this question; link.)

Here is one way we might approach the idea of folk sociology. We might raise the question of the realism of the social concepts that we use in understanding the larger social world. In particular, do our ordinary notions of power, class, race, political interest, exploitation, charisma, or capitalism serve a valuable scientific function; do they help us analyze the social world in a way which is conducive to scientific theorizing? Or are they simply convenient fictions, best dispensed with when we seek to understand social phenomena in a rigorous way? Or even worse -- are they deliberate forms of deceit, imposed by powerful unseen actors who want citizens to see the social world in these terms rather than those terms, as the slave owner wants the slave to see the master as a benevolent provider?

It is clear that there are many constructs that some people use in order to represent and understand the social world that are the opposite of veridical (link, link). The idea of mystification that Marx offered in Capital in his account of the fetishism of commodities captures this view.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connexion with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

In a nutshell, the social nature of commodities disappears in the common understanding of toothpaste and running shoes. So Marx's view seems to be that many of the concepts that we ordinary social participants have of the world around us -- our "folk sociology" and "folk political economy" -- are misleading and false. And in fact, his idea of "critique" was precisely aimed at uncovering these misconceptions -- criticizing the superficial views that ordinary people and political economists alike have of how the modern social and economic system works, and replacing their key concepts with constructs that do a better job of identifying the "real" workings of the social system. In Marx's view, this set of concepts has to do with the specifics of the forces and relations of production and the conflicts of interest that these social realities create -- class conflict.

False and misleading conceptions of the social world are found everywhere -- in the present and in the historical past. The old idea of the "American dream" falls in this category -- the idea that anyone can achieve success and affluence through talent and effort. But we know that there are systemic obstacles that confront the majority of young people, so that their life prospects are dim. The conspiracy theories of the far right are riddled with ideas about how the social world works that no rational person would accept. Vladimir Putin's myths of Ukraine's "Russian" identity and the founding myths of Russian nationalism fall in the category of useful lies, deliberately conveyed to create a perception of history for the Russian public that is fundamentally false and misleading. Putin's propaganda is designed to create an alternative worldview for Russian citizens, far removed from the historical realities. Stalin's efforts during and after World War II to erase Jewish victims from Nazi extermination actions in Kiev and elsewhere fall in the same category. And Trump-world's view of "election lies" and supposedly corrupt election processes is likewise a deliberate myth, designed to motivate followers. And yet each of these framing ideas about the workings of the social world have been profound and foundational for some people at some points in history.

Upon reflection, it seems clear enough that the social world is not fully transparent, and our ordinary beliefs and concepts about how the social world works are sometimes highly misleading. This is why the ideas of ideology and mystification are so relevant for social knowledge. So it seems as though we have no choice but to exercise our critical intelligence to seek to uncover the real mechanisms and processes that lead to change and stability in the world. We are forced to reflect on our own "folk" beliefs about our social world and critically adjust our concepts and hypotheses in such a way that we have better insight into underlying social processes and mechanisms. We are forced, in short, to "demystify" social knowledge (link). We need theories and hypotheses about the social world in order to understand the dynamics that surround us; and yet we must reaffirm the particular importance of critical and truthful investigation in assessing the theories and hypotheses that are presented to us.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Frameworks and stereotypes


It is evident that we approach the social world, and specific social settings, with a body of "framework" assumptions about what is going on, and how we should behave. Here is how I put the point in an earlier post:

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have "frames" of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation. (link)

Erving Goffman is the sociologist who is best known for exploring this view of social action (link, link, link). We might describe frameworks like these as providing stylized ways of interpreting situations -- stereotypes; and as providing heuristics for how one should behave in such situations.

Such frameworks are especially visible in social settings that invoke race, gender, and power (link). Individual participants have schemata or stereotypes through which they construe the behavior of others, and they have scripts on the basis of which they behave in these kinds of situations. The racial code of the Jim Crow south prescribed frameworks of interpretation and action for all actors -- black and white men, black and white women. And, of course, often both schemata and scripts are incorrect and misleading. For example, the person who perceives the approaching group of loud teenagers as "menacing" may also fall into his or her own script of aggression or flight -- rather than permitting a pleasant and constructive social encounter to unfold. 

Examples of false construal are common in mundane situations as well. The professor who sees the student who is constantly playing with her phone in class may interpret her behavior as boredom and disrespect; whereas a trained observer may see signs of insecurity and anxiety in the behavior instead. And the two different construals may lead to very different behaviors on the part of the instructor and the clinically trained observer -- punitive on the part of the professor and supportive on the part of the clinical observer.

This feature of social action is probably relevant to the question of police-civilian interactions that lead all too often to aggression and excessive use of force by police officers. When assumptions about race and potential for violence frame the officer's perception of a situation, the likelihood of excessive force is amplified. And this suggests an avenue for addressing excess force: find ways of disrupting the received frameworks on the basis of which the police officer perceives and interprets situations involving young men of color. (This is the purpose of "hidden bias" training.)

What is interesting about social-cognitive frameworks like those mentioned here is that they are causally powerful. When a group of people have internalized a particular set of attitudes and beliefs about other people, their behavior is likely to lead to specific kinds of future interactions. And this tendency produces important social dynamics -- in the workplace, in universities, and in domestic settings. Racially charged frameworks give rise to racially charged behavior -- which creates a cycle of toxic social relations among individuals in the group.

To what extent is the individual actor a prisoner of his or her social-cognitive framework? Is social creativity possible? Can individuals arrive at new interpretations of social scenes, or are they constrained by their existing cognitive framework to see only what they expect to see? 

If this line of thought were correct, then it would be impossible to overcome racial, gender, or class expectations. Individuals would be "algorithmic", living out the implications of their ways of interpreting the behavior of others. But in fact, human beings have an ability to think reflectively and critically about the frameworks on the basis of which they interpret the social world and the behavior of others. This is the most fundamental value of a tolerant and inclusive social environment: it encourages each individual to try to see the world through the experience of others -- and thereby to alter one's own framework assumptions about how the world works and how to behave. (Here is a recent post on the importance of cultivating a genuinely inclusive social environment; link.)

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Journal of Critical Realism CFP on Judgemental Rationality


Roy Bhaskar is best known for his ideas about social ontology. However, he also had a substantial interest in "the epistemology of social science" -- the means through which social scientists provide their theories with rational credibility. The Journal of Critical Realism is planning a special issue on the key concept that Bhaskar introduced in this area, "judgemental rationality". Readers can find the full Call for Proposals here.

Here is how Robert Isaksen, on behalf of the editorial committee of JCR, introduces and defines the concept of judgemental rationality:

Judgemental rationality is the critical realist concept that deals with issues relating to the possibility to make claims to knowledge and truth, and to claims about false beliefs. As such, it is relevant to empirical researchers and philosophers of knowledge alike. 

Isaksen continues:

Judgemental rationality has a central place in critical realism, being one part of what has been termed the Holy Trinity of Critical Realism (Bhaskar 2016). Though judgemental rationality was an implicit part of critical realism from the start, a more complete explication is made in Bhaskar’s third book, Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation ([1986] 2009), in particular sections 1.3, 1.5, 1.6, 1.8, and 2.4. The argument, in short, is that the necessity of ontological realism implies the actuality of epistemic relativity (and which in turn mutually implies ontological realism), and together these make for the possibility of judgemental rationality (24), i.e. of rational theory choice, even between theories from competing paradigms (92). Such rational choice of one theory over another is predicated upon choosing the theory which has comparatively greater explanatory power, using specific criteria (73, 82), and that there is an agent able to make such a comparison (e.g. 87). In critical realist research this would come in addition to searching for underlying causal mechanisms, and indeed can be seen as central to this very process.

Here is an earlier post on the need for an epistemology for the theory of critical realism (link). There I suggest that CR's historical allergic response to "positivism" is a barrier to formulating an evidence-based epistemology for this approach to thinking about the social sciences.

Like a left handed quarterback, CR has a disadvantage in formulating an epistemology because of its blind side. In the case of CR, the blind side is the movement's visceral rejection of positivism. CR theorists are so strongly motivated to reject all elements of positivism that they are disposed to avoid positions they actually need to take.

I conclude with an affirmation of the centrality of empirical standards:

Critical realism seeks to significantly influence the practice and content of social science theory and research. In order to do this it will need to be able to state with confidence the commitments made by CR researchers to empirical standards and evidence-based findings. This will help CR to fulfill the promise of discovering some of the real structures and processes of the social world based on publicly accessible standards of theory discovery and acceptance.

Given the centrality of good thinking about scientific rationality for pursuing the program of critical realism in the social sciences, I encourage readers to consider submitting an article to the JCR special volume on judgemental rationality. This is an important and strategic subject within the philosophy of the social sciences, and will help to bridge between "philosophical theory" and "scientific practice". Here is the link for the CFP.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Reforming policing


The persistent fact of racial disparities in the use of deadly force by police officers in US cities is an intolerable injustice. The Washington Post has maintained a database of police shootings since 2015 which includes shootings but not other causes of death; link. This database shows a glaring level of disparity between black, Hispanic, and white persons shot by police officers. The rates provided in the report indicate 42 deaths per million for the Black population, 30 deaths per million for Hispanics, and 17 deaths per million for Whites. And yet efforts at police reform have been largely disappointing. Why is that the case? 

One component of the problem appears to be organizational. Police departments are complex organizations, with articulated authority relations from the street police officer to the sergeant to the lieutenants and captains. And, as we have seen in other instances of organizational dysfunction (link, link), there is the omnipresent possibility of principal-agent problems arising in a police organization. But second, police departments exist within a broader system of political authority -- mayors, city managers, city councils, state regulatory agencies, and even the Federal Department of Justice. Here again, there is only imperfect ability for political authorities to enforce their policies within the workings of the sub-agency, the police department. 

Compounding this ramified problem of principal-agent deviance, there are two other organizational features that work against the possibility of effective reform: conflicting priorities about police functioning at various levels (mayor, city council, police chief, sergeant, patrol officer); and the likelihood of a pervasive "culture of policing" that runs against the grain of effective efforts at operational reform.

In order to map out the complexity of police reform processes, let's first examine the actors and levers of change that are involved in the process. The actors include at least these: the public, legislators, DOJ, mayor, chief, mid-rank supervisors, rank-and-file officers. And, crucially, none of these actors are robots; they all have their own priorities, values, assumptions, biases, and plans, and they constitute a loosely-connected system of interaction with major social consequences.

It is crucial to take account of the specifics of the culture of work that exists in a police department. It is well understood in organizational studies that "culture" is an important determinant of functioning (link). The daily workings of an organization depend on the activities and behavior of the people who make it up; workers have habits, expectations, ways of perceiving social situations, and behavioral dispositions in a range of stylized circumstances. So, for example, the specifics of the safety culture on an oil rig in the North Sea have a great deal of impact on the likelihood of disaster on the rig. This general fact is especially relevant in the context of policing. And many examples of organizational culture suggest that culture is more enduring than policy and regulation as a determinant of behavior within the organization.

The organizational tools that exist for influencing the behavior of police officers include training programs, supervision, policy enforcement mechanisms, and efforts to understand and change the culture of policing at the street level.

So a police commander or political leader who wants to reform the style of policing in his or her city is faced with a difficult problem: changing policing means changing behavior of individual police on the street, but the tools available to the commander to bring about these changes are very limited. So the habits of interaction with the public -- aggressivity, readiness to resort to force, racial bias --  persist in spite of orders, regulations, briefings, and seminars.

Within a traditional understanding of organizations, these conflicts between habits of behavior and the official expectations of the organization can be resolved through supervision: non-conformist behavior can be identified and penalized. Violent officers can be punished or dismissed; line workers who break the rules can be fined; call center workers can be disciplined when they deviate from their scripts. But this avenue poses at least two huge problems: first, the cost of close supervision is very high, and second, the cultural norms found at the street level may well obtain at the level of supervisors as well. 

The hard question is this: How is it possible to effect change policing practices and behavior if various of the actors mentioned here do not sincerely want to initiate and sustain change? The possibility exists that officers have embodied practices, prejudices, routines, and attitudes that guide their activity, and that these practices and prejudices themselves are a crucial ingredient in the incidence of excessive force and racial disparities in the use of force. Journalists and policy experts have observed that biases and assumptions about people of color permeate ranks of police officers. Further, it is likely that there is often a pervasive lack of buy-in for reform by rank-and-file officers. Under these circumstances, it seems likely that reform efforts will lose effectiveness as soon as intensive scrutiny is lessened (for example, when DOJ oversight comes to an end in a particular city or department).

Several ongoing efforts at understanding the obstacles that impede police reform are currently available. The Brookings-AEI Working Group on Criminal Justice Reform has provided a series of careful and insightful working papers on the subject (link). Here is a summary of the working group's primary recommendations: 

Short-Term Reforms

  Reform Qualified Immunity

•  Create National Standards for Training and De-escalation

Medium-Term Reforms

  Restructure Civilian Payouts for Police Misconduct

•  Address Officer Wellness

Long-Term Reforms

•  Restructure Regulations for Fraternal Order of Police Contracts

•  Change Police Culture to Protect Civilians and Police

Another ongoing research and policy effort is the SPARQ working group at Stanford University (link). The SPARQ group has undertaken to assess the availability of results in the social sciences that can help better understand the challenge of ending racial bias in policing. Here are the topics that this group has considered: 

1. What do we have to offer in the current moment as social psychologists?

2. Why is it so hard to end racism?

3. What’s the connection between people having implicit biases and the racial disparities we see across society?

4. Why might the “bad apples” theory of police misconduct fall short?

5. What is the organizational structure of a municipal police department? Could restructuring a police department shift its culture?

6. What does it really mean when people call out the culture of policing?

7. What does policing look like in other places? How might we reimagine it?

8. Who sets standards for the police? How does law enforcement fit into the larger system of governance and where are possible levers for change? 9. Can’t we just train police officers to do better? What’s the evidence on implicit bias and use-of-force trainings?

10. Do police body-worn cameras help or hurt?

11. Are there successful strategies out there to help bridge police-community divides? 

12. What other groups or organizations are using social science to drive change?

These are crucial questions that must be addressed if the US is to successfully solve the large and messy problems of policing in our society (Here is a discussion of "messy" problems in the social sciences; link).

Sociologist Stephen Mastrofski has devoted a great deal of attention to organizational issues within policing. Mastrofski and Willis provide a survey of findings in this field in a useful article in Crime and Justice (39:1 2010; link).

Finally, Human Rights Watch produced a major report on this issue as well (link). This report gives less attention to the organizational challenges of police reform and more attention to the societal causes of systemic patterns of excessive use of force by US police.