Fear of Rejection Drives Cops’ Bad Behavior

Sue Rahr, former elected Sheriff of King County, Washington, past director of state-wide police training, and friend of mine, recently wrote a most important commentary on the recent killing Black men in America and the pervading culture of violence in policing.

Why don’t our police get better so that these tragic deaths no longer happen? I mean, that’s the question, isn’t it? The answer? — “Nothing (policy, laws, or even personal injury) “assuages the fear of rejection” that police officers must daily negotiate. That’s why “duty to intervene” policies or even laws, will not be enough to cause a police officer to step out and say to his or her working partners, “Stop, this is wrong!” Rahr knows what it is like, I know it, and every other cop in America knows it, too!

Despite this toxic subculture, changes must be made. The subculture needs to be replaced by emotionally intelligent, well-trained and experienced police leaders. And when they do this, it will take immense courage, passion, patience and persistence, and community support over the course of the next two decades. There are no short-cuts!

It’s now time (finally) to get moving as a nation — police reform — NOW!


The Myth Propelling America’s Violent Police Culture

I worked in law enforcement for decades. Officers who see themselves as noble heroes can be the ones who do the most harm.

By Sue Rahr

“We, America’s law-enforcement leaders, have to change. I understand the motivation of police leaders who believe they are protecting the “good” men and women who join this profession with honorable intentions. I was one of them. But ignorance and good intentions don’t justify or eliminate the actual harm caused by misguided actions. I cringe when police leaders describe officers like Derek Chauvin as ‘bad apples’ or ‘rogue cops,’ as if their behavior is a surprise. How can anyone be surprised? And nothing would have changed without the public exposure of the video showing George Floyd’s death. This is what happens in a culture that accepts, rationalizes, and makes excuses for indefensible behavior and prioritizes group loyalty over speaking out.

“My generation of police was socialized in the comforting myth of police as heroes, engaged in a righteous battle. We didn’t learn the history of how police have been used to maintain order for those in power, such as on slave patrols or through enforcing Jim Crow laws, busting unions, or waging the War on Drugs. The insular culture of policing protects the flattering myth of heroes and keeps the ugly original mission hidden. The image of the noble hero, holding the line between good and evil, forms the very foundation of police group identity, intensifying the “us versus them” mentality and feeding on the profound human need to belong to a group.

“When I worked the street, the fear of being ostracized was stronger than the fear of getting shot. One incident stands out: I joined a team of undercover narcotics detectives on a poorly conceived and nearly catastrophic drug bust. The tactical plan made no sense and seemed reckless to me. But I was the new kid on the team and kept my mouth shut. My partner nearly got his head blown off. It was one of those ‘but for the grace of God” moments. I still shudder when I think about how I would have faced his wife if she had become a widow and his kids had lost their father.’

“Though the vest, the gun, the training, and the equipment all lessen the physical danger of the job, nothing assuages the fear of rejection from one’s group.”

[The Atlantic, January 31, 2023.]


  1. In the wake of the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Sue Rahr, former sheriff of King County Washington, has penned the most enlightening thought-provoking commentary on the problem, the police subculture.

    Karl W. Bickel (301) 639-9665 KarlBickel@comcast.net mailto:KarlBickel@comcast.net



  2. It’s pretty frightening and sad when the police themselves are telling you how fucked up their culture is. I give the ones doing that a lot of credit. It cannot be easy.


  3. The Memphis incident was the result of incompetent supervision and management. That is the thing that is far too common in policing today, supervisors who avoid conflict by ignoring the little infractions until they grow into big ones like we saw here. The FIRST ones fired should have been whom ever was in charge of that unit, that’s how to actually fix a dysfunctional police culture.

    Sue, as always, makes great points but direct action is what is needed.


      1. Absolutely! I have a younger brother who followed me into policing and stayed for 30 years in a major city department as a street cop, retiring as a sergeant. His immediate reaction to the Memphis incident was that the sergeant, lieutenant and those in the chain up to and including the chief should have been fired. I cannot find fault with his opinion.


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