Fri. Jan 21st, 2022


A decade ago, politician, physician, and psychiatric registrar Lord David Owen studied an issue that is crucial to any democracy: the personality of people who are attracted to power. After studying political leaders of the past century in America and Britain, Owen came to the conclusion that those who ran for a high office were prone to hubris.

Most importantly, he found that this trait was exacerbated once an individual acquired a leadership role. “Hubris syndrome is a disturbance of the possession of power,” he wrote in 2009, noting that it has often led leaders out of control.

To put it another way, personality matters. So much so that, as Owen noted, the ancient Athenians used a lottery system to elect their leaders to prevent only the wrong type of people from choosing the job themselves. This is thought-provoking, not least because Owen argued that a similar principle applies in the business world.

Now Brian Klaas, associate professor of global politics at University College London, has expanded these ideas to look at other modern authority roles. One of the most interesting case studies in his book Transient: who gets power and how it changes us is the highly controversial issue of policing. More specifically, how police officers are selected and what type of person applies for what type of job.

Klaas notes that the people involved in a profession such as policing are rarely representative of society. This is partly because employers are looking for specific characteristics in candidates, but also because applicants themselves choose to meet popular definitions of particular positions. Police officers in the US and Europe, for example, tend to be white and masculine because it has traditionally been the dominant demographics associated with the job.

According to Klaas, research indicates that there are also psychological distortions. Police officers tend to be more authoritarian and controlling than the general public. “Six percent of Americans have served in the military, but 19 percent of U.S. police officers are ex-soldiers,” he writes, noting that studies in parts of the U.S. show that police have a higher-than-average propensity for violence .

These distortions can be amplified by the recruitment process, and often in a fairly obvious way. Klaas quotes a town in Georgia that uses videos that deliberately depict ultra-aggressive images in his material.

Sometimes selection skew occurs by default. In parts of Alaska, there is such a shortage of candidates applying for police positions that the only available candidates appear to be those with authoritarian tendencies. This is a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma.

Some might argue that such a pattern is not surprising, given the element of enforcement required for the job. But at a time when police violence has led to the deaths of many innocent people in the US, and created bitter political battles, this is a pattern with potentially major consequences.

A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that only 26 percent of Americans have “a lot of confidence” that the police will act in the interest of the wider public. Among the black population and Democratic voters, that ratio drops to 10 percent and 13 percent (compared to 32 percent for white voters and 42 percent for Republicans).


So far, debate on the topic has focused on issues such as gun control, police monitoring and surveillance. But Klaas believes that the issue of recruitment should not be overlooked. “To correct policing, we need to focus less on those who are already in uniform, and more on those who have never considered wearing one,” he says.

He points to New Zealand, for example. Police there have historically been recruited with enforcement messages. But in 2017 there was a shift. Recruitment videos showed women and Maori police officers along with white men engaged in acts that supported and did not dominate their community.

One video, which went viral, depicted police engaging in a dramatic, “high-input chase” for a missing downy dog. Although it was possible PR and it was impossible to prove causality, the release of these videos correlated with a subsequent increase in applications for police posts of women and Maori people.

Can it work in the US? Viral videos are unlikely to make a big dent, given the increasing gun violence and accusations – from all sides. Nevertheless, Klaas’ point about power and personality could and should be woven into the debate.

When Pew pollsters asked the American public what could improve confidence in law enforcement, the top-ranked choice (supported by 92 percent) was to “require the police to be trained in non-violent” approaches to doing their job. Americans, in other words, seem eager for a change in their police force.

So far, it has mostly been discussed in terms of encouraging more ethnic diversity: the New York Police Department recently got its first black female police chief, Keechant Sewell. But, as the ancient Athenians knew, it also pays to recruit for personality diversity. As Klaas remarks: “What the police do matters. But who the police are can matter even more. “

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at gillian.tett@ft.com

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