Police Violence Through Schneier's Lens

Bruce Schneier’s book Liars and Outliers has a security framework that’s been helping me understand police brutality lately . Schneier, one of the top computer security researchers in the world, wrote that book to describe a holistic view of how societies prevent people from harming each other. He breaks harm-prevention into four different categories: moral, social, institutional, and security.

Let's go through what those different methods are, and how they are (not) used to keep the police from hurting the public.

Moral Pressure

Moral pressure is the internal feeling that individuals have about right and wrong. It's when someone thinks "it's wrong to steal," or "killing people is bad." When people act on these principles, that is the effect of a moral framework that stops people from wanting to hurt others in the first place.

When officers are required to get implicit bias training, that training is seeking to provide an additional moral sense for the officers. The sense that certain actions that might look innocuous are actually racist and harmful to society. I think implicit bias is real (though less powerful than most of it's proponents believe).

Most police become officers out of a desire to help people. There are exceptions, and white supremacist groups have a history of infiltrating the police. When you actually ask officers why they became police, 68% cite a desire to help people. The same survey also shows that 41% of police officers “see injustice in the world and want to correct it.”

I am worried that only 68% of the officers in that survey said they became police officers in order to help people. As I understand it, the survey allowed you to agree with many options, so the idea of 32% of police didn’t care enough about their community to even check a box does worry me. Given the role that police play in our society, I’d prefer more emphasis on that particular trait when recruiting.

In fact, I worry that the current police situation is making recruiting moral officers more difficult. If someone right now cares about helping their community or righting injustice, I doubt that they’d think going into the police is the best way to do it. Systemic issues in policing could be actively pushing away the people that we most want to do the work, slowly making police departments worse for their communities.

Societal Pressure

If Moral Pressure doesn't stop someone from considering a harmful act, Societal Pressure often will. We live in a society, and people want their peers to think well of them. They don't want to be shunned, whether literally or figuratively. They want to be respected. Unfortunately, this harm prevention method has been totally twisted by our modern policing systems.

Who are a police officer's main peers? Other police.

Many officers in large cities can't afford to live in those cities, and so they actually live in the suburbs. This further separates the officers' peer groups from the people that they directly impact.

Not only that, police (seemingly driven largely by union leadership) have a strong culture of protecting their own. That means that Social Pressure is pushing police to ignore violations from within the police, instead of pushing police to avoid those violations. Watch the video of the police pushing a 75 year old to the ground, seriously injuring him. Several police in the team around the man look worried, and like they want to help him. The official report (before the video came out) was that the man had tripped. That means that everyone on this team chose not to correct the official report. That includes the ones who looked worried about him during the event. That’s the force of societal pressure, causing these officers to try to protect their own instead of doing what’s right.

This severe perversion of social pressure within police departments means that many externally imposed methods of fixing police violence will be swept aside. The desire of humans to be an accepted member of their group is the strongest force in the known universe, and that force is currently working to protect corrupt police officers.

Institutional Pressure

If someone's morals won't keep them from violence, and their social peers won't ostracize them for it, then it's up to the institutions they're a part of to impose official sanctions. These institutional sanctions are most of what we talk about when we talk about law and order. The official laws that people are supposed to follow, along with real consequences when the laws aren't followed.

People (including police), respond to their incentives. Without real consequences to their actions, the police will continue to hurt others.  

A lot has been shared recently about all of the failures of institutional pressure against the police. I'll just mention what I see as the biggest two right here.

The first is qualified immunity. Police who harm others in the course of their job (whether maliciously or not) are protected from the consequences that a member of the general public would face. This protects police from consequences for more than just the egregious murders committed by police officers. There are examples of police stealing hundred of thousands of dollars, of them shooting children, killing pets, and not being punished for any of it. The effect of qualified immunity means that police don't have real consequences for many major incidences of violence.

Secondly, even when an officer is sanctioned for poor behavior, many police unions have negotiated loopholes with local municipal governments. An officer may be sanctioned and lose their job, but then be hired back after their records are shortly sealed. Records may be kept secret from independent watchdog groups, preventing patterns of behavior from being seen (and thus preventing sanctions from properly escalating).

All of this means that bad behavior among the police is tolerated at an institutional level. It’s prohibitively difficult to use law and sanction to punish police officers that abuse the public. Officers who notice that they can get away with little violations will be more willing to commit larger violations.


Security is what is supposed to save you after morality, social pressure, and institutional sanctions have failed. If someone is trying to hurt you, you use cameras to observe them, you use locks to keep them out, you use guards to physically stop them.

That's what's happening right now. Morality, social pressure, and the law have all failed to keep Americans safe from their police. Now we have people filming police behavior and sharing it online. We have people physically putting themselves between people of color and the police trying to hurt them. We have protesters explicitly calling police out on their behavior, demanding change.

Security is the last line of defense because it's very expensive. I'm really glad the protests are happening now because things need to change. Unfortunately, one reason the protests are so strong right now is that so many people are out of work. Their opportunity cost for protesting is low, so they can put in the effort that's needed now.

We need to fix the other aspects of our police system so that people don't keep dying after America fully returns to work. We need to make that change now, and we need to make it last.