It has happened once again: the violent death of a seemingly innocent man.
In this case, however, there is a plot twist. Instead of the sadly typical narrative of a race-related hate crime of white on Black, this incident involved officers and a victim from the same racial group and culture. This time, Black officers beat to death a Black man who was, by body cam evidence, cooperating with their every command.
So what happened? How did this go so wrong?
The answer may be due to a difficult-to-manage yet universal psychological phenomenon known as self-hatred.
Self-hatred is a difficult emotion to process. Psychology Today defines it as “continual feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and low self-esteem.”
This affects individuals and groups who often see themselves as never “good enough” when it comes to competition for position and power in society. They often only perceive the negative and ignore all things positive.
They then overcompensate when in a group from which they may borrow respect, power, and authority. Many of these people also seek out validation through sometimes aggressive activities such as sports and professions in which aggression is often allowed—such as law enforcement.
Self-hatred can manifest in a variety of self-destructive ways, such as:
- Feeling worthless or inadequate
- Low self-esteem
- Self-criticism and negative self-talk
- Difficulty accepting compliments or praise
- Avoiding social situations
- Engaging in self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, eating disorders, or self-harm
It can also lead to destructive behavior such as violence and have a lasting impact on an individual’s life.
Self-hatred is often seen in individuals of a less powerful ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic group. Their constant battle to secure a place in the world creates significant dysfunction, internal angst, or anger, often exploding into violence. Many cases of domestic violence are examples of this.
While akin to the passionate acts associated with narcissistic rage, the violence stemming from self-hatred is more socially driven. Yet, they share the same etiology: a lack of personal validation and valuation that must be then fulfilled by external recognition or the compliance of another. When a man shoots his wife and her lover after catching them in the act, it is due to a perception that they were acting against him or, specifically, his ego. In the case of self-hatred, it is a projection of the self onto the victim, thus dominating, punishing, hurting, or even killing themselves through the victim.
When a person who suffers self-hatred is wronged, ignored, or disrespected —the latter being a very common description of why violent acts occur— things become personal, passionate, and violent. Law enforcement officers are trained to use verbal commands and are allowed, within certain limits, to use physical force or other tools such as pepper spray, hands-on control techniques, batons, and electronic weapons such as a TASER gun to force compliance. However, when the insult and disrespect perceived by the non-compliance offends a person suffering from self-hatred, it becomes personal and often leads to an overuse of such tactics.
In the case of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who was beaten Black police officers in Memphis on January 7 and died in the hospital three days later, the effects of self-hatred were quite evident. Though the official report describes aggression by the suspect, body cam video clearly shows a person, after he was chased down, fully complying with the officers’ instructions. Nevertheless, he was beaten repeatedly by multiple officers so viciously that it led to his death.
As we so sadly know from news reports, social media, and personal videos, these incidents are more common than many of us like to believe. Just last week, police in Huntington Park, California shot and killed a man wielding a large knife. The incident could have been justified as yet another lawful use of force by police, as in many cases, but in this case the man was fleeing from police on the stumps of his amputated legs.
The argument for the use of deadly force was the threat posed to officers by the large knife. Though that could be a legitimate risk to those men in blue, once again footage from witnesses shows a fleeing and scared suspect not posing a direct threat to those applying lethal force.
These heinous incidents do paint a rather bleak picture of law enforcement personnel that may reinforce self-hatred within police culture. Having worked with many officers in my profession, I can tell you that the vast majority are well-meaning individuals who chose a career in law enforcement to help their communities—“to protect and serve” rather than punish and dominate, as many think they do.
Nevertheless, they are human just like you and me, and regardless of their training, they are susceptible to making serious mistakes. Add to that the pressures of the job, seeing other humans doing awful things, and the overtime hours now rampant due to understaffed departments, and incidents like this become sadly predictable.
So how does society —and law enforcement in particular— address this?
In their recruitment processes, police departments should recognize the signs of self-hatred and take steps to address it. The same goes internally for those already working as officers.
Strategies for dealing with self-hatred in law enforcement include:
- Seeking out professional help, such as counseling or therapy
- Practicing self-care and self-compassion
- Developing healthy coping skills
- Connecting with supportive peers and mentors
- Learning to recognize and challenge negative thoughts
- Providing adequate training and resources
- Encouraging open communication and feedback
- Recognizing and rewarding positive behavior
- Establishing clear policies and procedures
- Creating a culture of respect and understanding
The macho ethos of the profession may balk at such solutions, but they have been proven effective. During the early portions of the global war on terror, methods for bolstering psychological fitness were applied to our most elite fighting forces to amazing effect. Not only did they become better at doing their jobs, but their off-duty lives also improved as well.
Understanding the problem and solving it are different things. One must precede the other. I hope police departments begin to understand this better, for both the officers out in the field and the civilians with whom they interact. Departments need to do a better job of vetting, training, and supporting officers, so that citizens may regain a healthy respect for those in uniform.
Dr. Lauro Amezcua-Patino is the clinical voice of The Only You (Solo Tú), a podcast dedicated to simplifying the complex issues of the mind and mental illness. Originally from Mexico, Dr. Amezcua-Patino has been practicing in the metropolitan Phoenix area for over 30 years. Twitter: @SuSaludMental