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.
Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director, Ernest Becker Foundation, Seattle, WA
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.
Jon Maskály, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, North Dakota