Tentativa e erro

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Psychopaths in the police force?

Been musing about this question ever since my own shocking police experience with two London Metropolitan police officers last year. As a middle aged, middle class white doctor, I have always been treated like a human by police so it was a shock to be ignored, disbelieved and absolutely let down by police, when I called for help with my abusive ex.

Although most peoples’ go-to when they think of a psychopath is probably someone like Hannibal Lecter, very few psychopaths are serial killers and many successful psychopaths do not break the law. In fact, there are more than you would expect in the police force. After reading today’s report, this is not a surprise.

The first clinical description of the psychopathic personality is in Hervey Cleckley’s 1941 book “The Mask of Sanity”. The mask is constructed through charm and social dominance, superficial pro-social behaviours and resistance to anxiety and depression. Behind the mask lurk highly impulsive behaviour, reduced capacity for empathic response, and an impaired ability to recognize emotion in others. The ability to mask inner disturbance is a key reason why this disorder can be adaptive.

The gold-standard assessment for psychopathy is the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), published in 1991 y Canadian criminal psychologist Dr Robert Hare. This is a 20-item scale, scored by semi-structured interviews and collateral information such as hospital records.

Since then factor analysis has found two subtypes of psychopathy. Factor 1 psychopaths, sometimes called known as primary psychopaths, have more interpersonal characteristics like low anxiety, manipulativeness, grandiosity, and lack of empathy (Fearless Dominance (FD) types).

Factor 2, or secondary psychopaths show more lifestyle-antisocial traits, like impulsivity, general disregard for social norms, and a failure to plan, often associated with high trait anxiety (Self-Centered Impulsivity (SCI) types). Seven out of eight of the PCL-R subscales load to one of these types; the remaining subscale of coldheartedness represents a lack of emotion, guilt, empathy, and connection to others and can be found with either type.

Primary psychopathy is more adaptive and correlates with positive mood, socio-economic status, education level and social functioning, whereas secondary psychopathy is associated with aggression, substance abuse, and suicidality.

There is increasing interest in “successful psychopathy.” These, generally primary psychopaths are able to convincingly conceal their psychopathic features and use them to increase their success.

So here’s the thing. Law enforcement is a stressful and traumatising career. According to Doreian & Conti in 2017 “beginning with the police academy, recruits are presented with a punitive initiation into the occupational subculture in which pain, degradation, and sacrifice are central to their socialization”. Once on duty, police officers may be physically attacked, publicly criticized, or may witness the deaths of citizens and fellow officers. That’s before even considering how tough it must be keeping up all the racism, misogyny and homophobia day in day out. With little or no thanks from the public they serve. Surprisingly, police officers generally exhibit emotional stability and are reported to be “remarkably free of psychopathology,” suggesting psychological resilience.

So, guess what, some traits of Factor 1 psychopathy, such as limited empathy, low anxiety, excitement-seeking, and dominance are indeed commoner in law enforcement. Research also suggests that having these traits may contribute to greater success as a police officer. Who knew?

Studies of criminal psychopaths have shown that Factor 1 traits of psychopathy remain stable throughout the lifetime, while Factor 2 traits tend to decrease with age, especially around the fourth decade. The maturation hypothesis says that immature personality types (like psychopathic or borderline) will become less impulsive and symptomatic as they age, while mature personalities (like obsessive-compulsive or paranoid) will degenerate over time with mental degeneration.

Traits of independence, wellbeing, empathy, self control, and good-impression were all found to decrease in the 5 to 10-year period after starting police careers, with a related increase in PTSD symptoms.

It’s certainly plausible that resilience against anxiety and depression of Factor 1 psychopathy could protect police officers from stress, while lack of empathy could protect them from PTSD after witnessing traumatic events. Factor 1 scores are found to be higher in less experienced police officers, plateau and then peak in the early 50s before decreasing over age 56, for the most experienced officers.

So both police officers and criminals tend to have higher levels of psychopathy than the general population, for police factor 1 traits are commoner and in the prison population, factor 2 traits predominate. Maybe it’s true that some kinds of psychopathic traits protect police officers from PTSD in their very stressful careers. We should also consider the “hero” mindset with low anxiety and high levels of fearlessness and social dominance. According to Lykken “The hero and the psychopath might be twigs on the same genetic branch”.

So where does that leave the Met? Branded “broken and rotten” to the core, public trust in the police has never been lower. The police complaints process, run by, guess who?, yes, correct, the police, is no better. Sir Mark Rowley, the Met Police Commissioner, has vowed to use this latest report to bring root and branch change to the Met. Because successful psychopaths are drawn to careers with prestige and authority over others, we have only ourselves to blame if we leave them to police themselves.

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