State Violence and Psychologists: the American Psychological Association, Police Killings and Torture

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By Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

This week the American Psychological Association (APA) is holding its annual meeting in turmoil resulting from the scathing independent review – the Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture or the Hoffman report – of the role of the APA leadership and specific present and former members in enabling torture in the War on Terror in the period just after Abu Ghraib came to light in 2004.  The willingness of the APA to provide cover for the torture is at the heart of the discussion.  There have been resignations and firing and pushback by groups such as the Society of Military Psychologists to defend what was done in that period.  The APA is going to evaluate not allowing psychologists to participate in interrogations in the future as part of its effort to reclaim its reputation or risk the organization’s credibility.

As if on cue, a report is coming out next month by eight top ex-CIA officials described here to rebut the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report whose redacted summary was released last December.  This effort has been ongoing since last summer when these former officials were given permission by the CIA to review the redacted report and prepare their defense long before the rest of America was allowed to read the report.  As a consequence, as the Senate Intelligence Committee report was released a very carefully orchestrated public relations campaign kicked into high gear to continue the defense of the torture as having been effective.  One of the persons who was instrumental in that defense effort was James Mitchell, the Texas Psychologist, who espoused the theories of “Learned Helplessness” and actually was the person who waterboarded some of the high value detainees in the War on Terror.  In addition to this literally hands on use of psychologists in the torture,  one of the features of the defense of this torture has been the use of psychologists in the torture program – thus bringing us back to the devastating critique of the psychologists role in the Hoffman report.


Today, another shoe falls that brings this issue of the role of psychologists home in the arena of domestic police shootings.  In a report in the New York Times, one answer as to why police are not charged in shootings or if charged are acquitted was brought forth in describing the training work and expert witness work of one psychologist.  His work has been scrutinized and criticized (he says unfairly) as pseudoscience. He, however, appears to be very effective in getting police to not be charged or acquitted and has appeared in at least 200 cases of some kind related to police shootings.

The common thread in these cases of state violence by torture or by police killings is the presence of a psychologist as an enabler of the torture or killing beforehand in training or a rationalizer of the torture or killing afterward allowing those state actors to not face meaningful accountability for their actions.

Given this reality, it would seem that this week at the APA is a particularly important time for that organization to reflect on its role and the role of its members in enabling state violence through the actions of its psychologists.  The should examine whether these psychologists are truly representing the profession in its most honorable way as a healing profession.  They should decide whether state licensing boards should be informed of these activities.  After all, a profession that enables state violence that is illegal and illegitimate betrays the public trust.