The Child Cop and the Monster: Police Killing and the Psychology of Abandon

December 3, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Police stops are scripted to minimize the chance of an emotional blowout. Stick to the rules and roles and nobody gets hurt. In Ferguson Missouri, a white cop named Darren Wilson and the black 18-year-old Michael Brown lost the script and a dozen bullets later, Michael Brown was dead, the nation rattled by protests, and the city choking on tear gas and arson. How did the script turn into do-or-die abandon?

While witnesses don’t agree on the details, Wilson tells the story this way: in his cruiser he heard a radio report of cigarillos swiped from a local market. Moments later he stopped Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, walking in the middle of the street, slowing traffic. Wilson claims he said, “Why don’t you guys walk on the sidewalk.”[1] According to Johnson, Wilson actually said, “Get the fuck on the sidewalk,” and Brown shot back: “Fuck what you have to say.” Startled by the defiance, Wilson notices cigarillos in Brown’s hand, calls in a request for help. When Wilson tries to get out of his cruiser to detain them, Brown pushes the door to shut him in and demands “What the fuck are you going to do about it?” Wilson retorts, “Get the fuck back.” Through the window Wilson grabs Brown’s arm (Johnson calls it a “tug of war”) and is shocked:

“And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”[2]

Brown punches Wilson’s cheek, and Wilson panics at being punched and trapped in the cruiser. He draws his pistol and threatens to shoot, but Brown taunts that “You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me,” and grabs for the gun. They struggle, and Wilson fires two shots. Now Brown backs away. He “had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Brown starts to flee, Wilson and his gun in pursuit. Then Brown turns, and ignoring commands to get down on the ground, charges him—or maybe steps toward him with his hands up to surrender. To the terrified Wilson,

“it looked like [Brown] was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way. I shoot a series of shots.” “I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.” 

Wilson empties his pistol at the suspect.[3]  This overkill stops “the demon.” With Brown’s death, the sense of abandon spread to violent protesters even as “the law” tried to restore the script. What caused the loss of control?

While panic is a response to terror, in abandon you cast off restraints and plunge ahead. A nervous system rush may give you emergency strength, daring, and clarity. This is why abandon fascinates us in boxing, bungee jumping, even in military training. But the experience is treacherous: you may “break through” to new powers or go berserk and run amok.

For whatever reasons, Michael Brown was on the edge of abandon from the moment he allegedly swiped the cigarillos—a move that disconcerted his friend Johnson. Challenged by Officer Wilson in the street, they exchanged macho Fuck-you’s, quickly creating a personal macho contest of threat displays.

Threat displays among animals usually involve deception such as puffing up to look fearsome. Cops rely on the authority of badge and gun to intimidate others. You and the officer both know he can kill you. Michael Brown was already large (6’4”, 290 pounds), and perhaps pumped up by brazen theft of the cigarillos. Both males used the jabbing Fuck you’s—abandon—as threat display. Slamming the cruiser door, trapping Wilson in the cruiser, grappling with him, Brown mocked the cop’s death threat:“You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me.”

For a moment Brown dominated the other man. He threw off inhibitions with a show of nerve and power, apparently believing the officer’s gun was a bluff.

Wilson, humiliated and frightened, imagining superhuman rage (the Hulk), tells us he felt like a helpless child. He coped by also plunging into abandon, turning flight to fight by pulling the trigger and chasing off Brown. When in the pursuit Brown turned back toward him, as if to dominate him again, Wilson saw it in macho body-building terms: Brown was “bulking up to run through the shots” and “like he was going to run right through me.”By then Wilson was far enough beyond self-control that he emptied the pistol in a spasm of overkill.[2]

Males use macho contests to sort out hierarchy. Masters used macho cruelty to dominate slaves. Later, whites used peonage and lynching to keep the upper hand. Wars of course are the ultimate macho contest. Like a soldier in Iraq or Vietnam, a white cop like Wilson is paid to protect yet also control “others” who may be friendly or hostile. As in Iraq, the temptation is to shoot first. And war is not just a figure of speech. Studies show that whites are quick to assume black men are criminals. Police guns kill 21 times more young black men than whites.[4] The justice system targets black males for imprisonment.

Americans fight over gun control because guns are a critical symbol in macho contests. Rampage killers identify with macho guns. Following a massacre, gun sales “surge,” with high-pitched NRA demands for more access to military-style automatic weapons.  The fear of being outgunned in a shootout and in threat display has American police militarizing with surplus corporate military hardware.

As you’d expect, this arms race makes abandon especially murderous, because anybody could be armed, and the logical brain can’t keep up with hair-trigger decisions.  Guns call for do-or-die survival reflexes and adrenalized passions, including racism. You can see the effects of abandon when a 911 call in Ohio sends cops to gun down 12-year-old Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun in an empty playground (11.23.2014).[5] The logical mind sees no threat here, but abandon grips the pistol and cries: He’s armed. Get him!  And then has a lifetime to remember the dead child and struggle with guilt and shameful excuses.

Abandon also shows up in the bizarre mismatch between deadly force and trivial offenses. Michael Brown died for a handful of cigars. With a chokehold, Staten Island police killed Eric Garner, a large frail black man, for selling loose “untaxed” cigarettes (7.17.2014). Trayvon Martin was killed basically for wearing a hoodie  (2.26.2013).

Martin’s death clarifies the psychology of abandon. Like Wilson, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, imagined his “police” role and gun gave him power over his young black “suspect.” He began trailing Martin, never imagining that the innocent, frightened “suspect” might seehim as a predator and also act with abandon. When Martin preemptively jumped him, dominating him in the scuffle, the vigilante panicked and shot him to death.

Prejudice (pre-judgment) says you can dominate “losers.” Until they sock you, that is— then suddenly they’re demons or the superhuman Hulk.

Abandon is modeled everywhere in American culture: from reality cop shows that trash “losers” to the bedwetting rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. After Adam Lanza’s rampage at Sandy Hook school, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre called for more guns: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He elaborated: “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment?”[i]

In this formula the gun makes you a heroic vigilante, and your adversary is “a genuine monster.” Officer Wilson saw Michael Brown as the monster Hulk Hogan. Ironically and tragically, some young black men try to look intimidating in order not to be taken for a loser. It’s a cycle, with each violent incident ratcheting up hair-trigger abandon.

The NRA and the corporate military want this nation to be a paramilitary state. With guns and “concealed carry” laws everywhere, cops are caught between prudence and do-or-die survival mode. Consider the way abandon is built into recent police killings in Ohio, and the training offered to the officers. A Beavercreek Ohio police training presentation focuses alarm on rampage killings, which are terrifying but actually rare. The instruction warns that “the faster we can neutralize [shoot] the suspect the less time he / she will have to harm innocent persons.” It concludes with an emotional photo of a teacher leading tots to safety at Sandy Hook school. (Remember officer Wilson feeling like a helpless “five-year-old.”)

In case you don’t get it, you’re tested: “An Active Threat is in a building with the person I love the most. I want Law Enforcement to: 1/ Wait outside for more officers. Or 2/ Enter the building and find the threat as fast as possible. What would you want?” [6] The psychological manipulation in this “training” contributes to a wild west mentality in which police shoot first and ask questions later.

“What would you want?”  It’s a macho taunt: Are you a coward?

It was in a Beavercreek Walmart that police killed 22-year-old John Crawford III as he held a fake gun from the merchandise rack while talking on his cellphone. Ronald Ritchie had phoned a phony alarm to a 911 dispatcher, and based on Ritchie’s lies, police fired on the shopper without sufficient warning. Crawford was black; Ritchie and the trigger-happy officer were not held responsible.

Policing is a system, and easily distorted by fear and bias. All of us, but especially police, are caught between official rules, which can’t cover every situation, and do-or-die abandon, which can make you a hero. Or a murderer.

The evidence says we need to do better.


Resources used in this essay:

Themes from the essay are further developed in my new book, The Psychology of Abandon, available soon from Leveller’s Press.

1. Grand Jury Testimony:https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1370494-grand-jury-volume-5.html#document/p212/a189246

2. Ang Lee’s film of the Marvel comic Incredible Hulk (2003) dramatizes berserk abandon. Made susceptible by radiation poisoning, Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) periodically becomes the Hulk: his eyes glow with alien fury, and his body swells to superhuman proportions.  He becomes indomitable but also abominably dangerous. The story is a parable about the risk of self-destruction in the struggle to master heroic autonomy.

3. Nonstop firing is a familiar symptom of berserk stress in combat, as in Lt. Calley’s killing at My Lai. While his platoon searched a house during the Iraq war, Kenneth Eastridge said he shot more than 1,700 rounds. “Families were out playing soccer and barbecuing,” and fled when the gunfire erupted. When asked how many people he killed, he said, “Not that many. Maybe a dozen.“

4. Charles M. Blow, “Fury after Ferguson,” NY Times, November 26, 2014.

5. http://readersupportednews.org/news-section2/318-66/27152-police-defend-killing-of-12-year-old-with-toy-gun

6. Beavercreek Police Training presentation, “Single Officer Response to Active Threats”


[i] Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2012, “Remarks from the NRA press conference on Sandy Hook school shooting (Transcript).”



  1. Police shoot about 400 civilians to death each year, as last reported by the Bureau of Justice Stats – which oddly has stopped tracking this number. Most of the shootings don’t go beyond local news. Police training gives a basic choice: Don’t draw the gun at all, or draw quickly and shoot at the torso until the subject hits the ground. Because bullets don’t stop someone instantly, there are usually several shots fired before the subject drops, and it usually results in death. Therefore, even if it was wrong, it wasn’t a rampage response by the officer, who was doing as taught. But I don’t see this training being altered – there’s no point in trying to shoot at legs, holding fire between shots, or other such nonsense, once a decision to shoot is made.

    • This otherwise informative reply, alas, assumes that officers always act according to training. Much depends on how the individual officer is wrapped.l All sorts of influences are at work in behavior, especially when threat arouses emergency physiology.

      • True, and unfortunately no one is going to second-guess the decisions they make. Utah, the state where I live, has never prosecuted an officer for an on-duty shooting, and probably never will.

      • Painful but true. As Don Dutton says in his _Psychology of Genocide & Mass Violence_, soldiers are virtually never prosecuted for slaughtering innocents either. Woof.

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