2021 NACOLE Webinar Series

Death Anxiety and Police Culture

Join us March 3, 2021 at 1:00p.m. EST as NACOLE welcomes experts who will explain the role of death in our lives and discuss research and theory that relates to policing and police culture. They will discuss the crucial relationship between our mortality and our behaviors and how understanding it can help us improve our communications and promote change. Mortality concerns are an essential element of our psyche that can have serious consequences and as a result, warrant serious consideration by those trying to address police behaviors and culture.

Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for The Denial of Death, in which he argues that the uniquely human awareness of our inevitable death gives rise to potentially debilitating existential terror. We manage this terror by embracing cultural worldviews: a set of shared beliefs about reality that reduce death anxiety by giving us a sense that we are persons of value in a world of meaning. Becker’s writings sparked a field of research called Terror Management Theory (TMT). TMT was developed in 1986 to test Becker’s thesis that we use culture as an existential anxiety buffer. Since then, there have been over 1000 studies in over 25 countries exploring how people respond to reminders of their own mortality.

So what does this have to do with policing?

Hundreds of studies conducted worldwide have shown that when reminded of our mortality – consciously or subconsciously – people seek out self-esteem, become increasingly committed to their cultures/in-groups, and increasingly antagonistic towards perceived outgroups. In other words, people are often more prejudiced when reminded of their mortality. These findings can help to explain violence in general, but also the disproportionate use of force on people of color, and on African Americans in particular, in situations where death is salient. A few examples: A 2012 study found that white Americans were more likely to label an ambiguous object as a gun rather than a tool after being reminded of death, especially if they were also subliminally exposed to Black faces. A 2018 Seattle University study used Becker’s ideas to discuss how social media can lead to increased police violence against minorities. A 2015 investigation in the American Journal of Criminal Justice argued that police culture may exacerbate shootings of unarmed suspects when mortality is salient.



D.Jacobs_-_headshot_(72_dpi).JPGDeborah Jacobs, Executive Director, Ernest Becker Foundation, Seattle, WA

Deborah Jacobs had her life-altering first exposure to Becker as a student of Sheldon Solomon at Skidmore College. Becker’s synthesis on human behavior resonated with Deborah in a profound way and has informed her observations and understanding of human behavior ever since. Deborah joined the Ernest Becker Foundation board in 2006 and assumed leadership of the organization in 2015. She serves the EBF as a volunteer.

Deborah’s career as a leader and advocate includes having served as Executive Director of the ACLU of Missouri and ACLU of New Jersey, as Vice President for the Ms. Foundation for Women, and as Director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight in King County, WA.

Deborah has expertise in issues such as police practices, criminal justice, open government, voting rights, free speech, privacy, immigrant rights, women’s equality, and reproductive rights. An understanding of Becker and Terror Management Theory has helped guide Deborah’s approach to advocacy work throughout her career.
Deborah’s work has been recognized by organizations such as the New Jersey NAACP, the National Organization for Women – New Jersey, and the Black Law Enforcement Officers of Washington.

Deborah holds a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from Skidmore College. In 1990, she served as a Fulbright Scholar in Helsinki, Finland conducting a project related to Finnish- Jewish identity.

J_Maskaly.jpgJon Maskály, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, North Dakota

Jon Maskály, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of North Dakota. Jon received his Ph.D. in criminology from the University of South Florida in 2014 under the mentorship of Dr. Lyndsay Boggess and Dr. Lorie Fridell. His research interests broadly rest in police-community relations. His recent work has revolved around police-misconduct (and police integrity), the effects of police body-worn cameras, measuring police-community interactions, and police officer decision-making. Jon’s research tends to be quantitative and theoretically informed. His recent work has appeared in The American Journal of Criminal Justice, The Journal of Criminal Justice, Policing & Society, and Policing: An International Journal. Jon serves on the Editorial Board for Law & Human Behavior and is active in the Southwestern Association of Criminal Justice, the American Society of Criminology, and the European Society of Criminology—among others. Beyond his scholarly work, Jon has worked as a senior research scientist for consent decree monitoring teams (East Haven, CT) and for multiple cities under the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Collaborative Reform and Technical Assistance Initiative (CRI-TA). On these projects, Jon has been responsible for helping agency extract, clean, and report on data involving various events of interest to their community (e.g., racial disparity in traffic stops, racial disparity in use of force, etc.). He is deeply committed to helping agencies improve their operations to meet the needs and expectations of their communities.
sheldon.JPGSheldon Solomon, Ph.D., Professor, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY
Sheldon Solomon is Professor of Psychology at Skidmore College. His studies of the effects of the uniquely human awareness of death on behavior with Jeff Greenberg (at the University of Arizona) and Tom Pyszczynski (at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) have been supported by the National Science Foundation and Ernest Becker Foundation, and were featured in the award winning documentary film Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality. He is co-author of In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror and The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Sheldon is an American Psychological Society Fellow, and a recipient of an American Psychological Association Presidential Citation (2007), a Lifetime Career Award by the International Society for Self and Identity (2009), the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs Annual Faculty Award (2011), and a Career Contribution Award by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2021).
March 03, 2021 at 1:00pm - 2:30pm
Cameron McEllhiney · · (317)721-8133