Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Innocent Little Knife - Why Shoot?

An email writer posed this question: “If a criminal has a knife (no other weapon), should 2 or 3 cops be able to subdue him?”

That is a good question. It is a question that, if answered without a realistic understanding of the laws of physics and human capacity, can result in death, imprisonment, or the end of a career for a police officer.

This particular question includes the assumption, for this hypothetical, that the person with the knife is a criminal. 

Responding officers, of course, must assess the criminality or dangerousness of a person with a knife in the light of whatever knowledge they have at the moment that they make a response decision. There are two overarching issues in this proposition. The first is the nature of the officer’s observations, the second is the set of choices made by the knife holder.

Let me deal first with the knife holder. We often talk about levels of persuasion used by police officers to gain compliance. This is known as the “use of force continuum” that, until recent years, was standard policy and training for law enforcement. The idea was that the officer was to identify and classify the level of resistance they encountered, then calculate a level just above that resistance and counter with the minimum necessary force to overcome that resistance.

The continuum usually began with “officer presence” – a uniformed, authoritative manifestation that presumably produced in the mind of a rational lawbreaker a desire to submit to an arrest with no further violence. The continuum was often graphically represented as a ladder or stair steps ending in deadly force. This model has largely been rejected by both trainers and courts for a various reasons of practicality. 

My point here is that the idea that it is the officer showing up that is the first determinant of the wrongdoer’s behavior is erroneous. First and foremost, it is the law that requires a lawbreaker to submit to an arrest, not the officer. In most states, even if the arrest is not lawful, the citizen must submit because there exist remedies that can be applied later.

All citizens, by social contract, agree to submit to authority and comply with the laws of the land for the greater good of the collective community. This means that criminal conduct is not only a knowing violation of the community good, but that criminals explicitly accept any consequences of their own behavior. Those consequences are well known and predictable. 

I’m perplexed that the current movement whose first assumption is the wrongdoing of a police officer who uses force to gain compliance with the law, takes no account of the choices of those against whom force is used who violate the first rule of citizenship.

The other issue - that of the officers’ decision making process - is that the decision of how to gain compliance is a complex one. The factors that go through an officer’s conscious and subconscious mind involve complex legal and regulatory standards as well as primitive survival responses to basic brain functions governing the fight, flight, or freeze neurochemistry. 

These factors include decisions based on the officer’s experience and training, some of which are so instantaneous and instinctive that the officer may not have a conscious memory of them, or are so subtle that they cannot be communicated or understood by a calm prosecutor, judge, or jury looking at the known facts from a distance.

Many of these factors do not show up on video, and most importantly, do not fit the template that most citizens have how violent encounters occur because they have little in common with the images of television and movies that are as imprinted in everyone’s minds. One could compare television police stories and real world encounters to soap opera romances compared to real life marriage. Expectations created by fantasy do not create appropriate behaviors in real life. 

The tensing of muscles, micro expressions flashing in a millisecond, a subtle angle of the shoulder or foot, or the change in breathing can signal – in context – resistance or aggression. Athletes are given great honor for such instincts in boxing or swinging at a pitch; as well as great latitude for failure. Interpreting and reacting to the complex physics of a pitched baseball a third of the time makes a batter a hero! By contrast, one mistake by a police officer ends a career even if, were all possible facts known, he or she made a reasonable decision.

As one can see, the question of whether two or three cops can take a criminal with a knife into custody without using deadly force (the implication of “without deadly force” being contained within the question) begins well ahead of what the public would ever see involving many factors that are not even visible.

If a person who an officer reasonably believes has engaged in criminal behavior, and is displaying a knife, and who is resisting, evading, or not complying with a police officer’s arrest, begins the question of what reasonable level of coercion is necessary to gain the resister’s compliance with the law.

The first question that seems to capture the attention of critics is the size of the knife. Perhaps common sense would seem to dictate that a large knife is more dangerous than a small knife, with the scale of dangerousness diminishing with the size of the blade. This assumption is not true. Some considerations are the vulnerabilities of human anatomy to a stab or incision, and the maneuverability of a blade in human hands, rather than how big or frightening the bladed weapons appears.

Multiple areas of the officers’ body are vulnerable to pain, disability, and mortality. We don’t have to go past the 9/11 airline hijackings to remember the lethality of a blade as small as a box cutter. 

The August 2015 attack on a Belgian train was stopped by two trained U.S. military men and a civilian. The three did subdue the attacker, but one of our heroes suffered a cut from the attacker’s box cutter than nearly severed his thumb. Addressing, again, the ethics of use of force, a lawbreaker does not earn the consideration of the lawful actors’ (the good guys) willingness to have a life altering injury to prevent injury to the lawbreaker. The lawbreaker has forfeited any such consideration by law and social convention.

The human heart is typically less than three inches from the skin. Stab depths are effected by the elasticity and compression of the body so that the length of the blade is not the limit of the depth of a stab wound. Although ballistic material is often worn by police officers, the material is designed to spread the force of a blunt bullet, not a thin blade. Therefore a knife could penetrate a bullet resistant vest that can stop a bullet. Again visiting the ethics of use of force, the fact that an officer has tools, training, and protective gear for dealing with violent resistance does not, therefore, justify any concession of advantage to the lawbreaker.

Add to the risk of a single fatal stab, the vulnerability of eyes, arteries, and fingers to a slashing incision, one can imagine that a police officer attempting to gain control of a resisting subject who has a blade might be distracted or disabled by pain, blindness, or dysfunction with one intentional or accidental slash or stab.

The swiftness of a knife wielding person would obviously be affected by the size of his blade. A long samurai sword swung in an arc would take longer to maneuver than a paring knife. This makes the paring knife potentially more lethal than the sword in close encounters. A ten year old little league pitcher can hurl a baseball at 50 MPH. A thrusting or swinging motion with a blade is very fast and can be happening in literally an infinite number of angles. Add to that any running motion that might be a part of resistance or attack, even assuming an additional 3 MPH of body motion, makes any police attack on the knife as a target highly unpredictable.

Many training exercises police use involve a static dummy target, or role players who simply can’t accurately replicate a person motivated and willing to kill another person. What our imaginations envision of what a standoff between a bad guy and some cops would look like is not reflective of the speedy and deadly attack of a resisting felon in a real confrontation.

The argument that officers can use a night stick to create distance and knock a knife from a person’s hands assume an officer’s eye hand coordination under extreme physiological stress is accurate enough to be a certain success (since a second chance is by no means guaranteed!) The dynamics of movement, the speed and the infinite possibilities of direction makes getting close enough for a stick strike too much of a risk.

Not only is hitting the target an uncertainty, the effectiveness of an accurate strike is not certain either. Resisting criminals may be under the influence of alcohol, other drugs, or just adrenaline. All of these chemicals reduce response to pain. This means that a strike must not merely hurt enough for a person to drop their weapon, the strike must be powerful enough to break the anatomical structure enough to stop the control of the attacker over the weapon. That means interrupted nerves, broken bones, and damaged musculature.

Meanwhile, a motivated aggressor not limited to fighting just with his or her knife, but with the other hand as well as feet and head and teeth. Moving in close enough to do anything suggested by a non-lethal response presents the officers with too many threat variables to effectively control. I liken it to trying to reach into a blender to stop the blades from spinning without getting cut.

Another argument is that a gun is never a “fair fight” with a person who has a knife. A few points to remember are that 1) the resistor is making a choice to resist the law and the agents of that law and therefore is not entitled to any fairness until he or she is in custody; 2) just because a resistor is displaying one weapons doesn’t preclude the possibility that he or she has an additional weapon; and 3) a bladed weapon, as this writing has shown, is a deadly weapon and therefore merits a deadly weapon in response – not as a matter of some street fighting ethics but as a matter of tactics designed for the good guys to certainly win.

Keep in mind that a failure by the police in terms of allowing an officer to be wounded or killed, or to allow a dangerous person to escape and thereby threaten the peace and lives of other citizens, is a very high cost financially and morally to the community.

The TASER, or other electronic control device (ECD), is not appropriate as the first choice against an edged weapon. Best practice is to deploy an ECD against a person with a deadly weapon only if at least one other officer is present with lethal cover (i.e. with his or her firearm drawn) in case of ECD failure. ECDs have limitations and conditions for success that make the outcome of their use too unpredictable to be used as the primary option when facing a bladed weapon.

It must be noted that even deadly force is uncertain, as in many documented cases of attackers'  continued aggression after sustaining a deadly injury. Once again movies have convinced us that people who are shot fall dead immediately, which is rarely true.

The simplest answer to the initial question is no, multiple police officers should not attempt to arrest a criminal who is armed with a knife without an immediate deadly force option. The best outcome is always for the person who has chosen to be armed with a knife to then choose to submit to the lawful orders of our laws representatives – the police officer.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

I need help! pssst - don't tell anybody! The police officer's choice - secrets or the job.

            After my article on recognizing signs of distress in a colleague ( I received several emails, two of which made an impact on me.
A Tale of Two Officers
            One officer related how his supervisor and friend began to recognize signs of depression in his behavior, speech, and work. His colleagues called him on it and offered support. After engaging in some therapy this officer was able to recover and remains a productive detective on his department.
            Another officer, by contrast, wrote to tell of his struggle with prescription drug dependence. After a surgery, the officer discovered that he had become dependent on the pain killers. Although there was no effect on his work performance, he recognized his need to address the problem and sought help. He was able to get into a rehabilitation program which successfully got him back to his pre-surgery mental and physical fitness. Other than his time off for treatment, there was never any performance concerns from his department regarding his work.
            Based on medical records from his department’s medical providers, the department filed charges on some technical violations of failing to disclose his prescription use. The case may result in the loss of his career.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
            The officer who recognized his problem and solved it is being punished for his honesty. The obvious irony is that by confronting a health problem that could have affected his career in the long term may have short circuited it in the short term. The worst outcome of such a case is not just for this officer, but for the profession as a whole. The lesson may be to keep your struggles to yourself and hope you can avoid disaster since you can’t trust your employer’s health providers with confidentiality.
            The law enforcement and corrections professions cannot afford to encourage its members to keep their problems secret. Mental health issues such as depression and substance dependency rarely resolve on their own – especially in the pressure cooker of this kind of work. Agencies and legislatures must protect these professionals from job loss for seeking care where no permanent threat to public safety exists.
Stress and Survival
            Stress and other health and fitness issues must be elevated to more than a short block of instruction in the police academy. Along with Constitutional Law, EVOC, arrest control, and firearms, holistic health should be the fifth pillar of knowledge for every law enforcement officer.
            Health stresses, whether originating in the brain or the rest of the body, always ultimately impact the health of a department and, by extension, the community it serves. Prevention and treatment are the keys to preserving an agency’s most vital asset – the well trained officer. Punishing the sick and losing decades of potential service by failing to preserve an employee is wasteful and cruel.
Rookies and Administrators
            One of the ways that these issues slip through the cracks is that mid-career officers are the most vulnerable, both in health risk and to the risk of losing a career. Rookies tend to be healthier (not yet worn out), and less self-aware of the subtle corrosive effects of job related stress. They frequently lack the far sightedness to maintain self-care, including reporting and attending to injuries on the job.
            Administrators may tend to forget what patrol and shift work does to a human body. They may also be so focused on liability and short term costs that they find it easier to rid the department of a “problem” than to address it and preserve a valuable asset.
Dollars and Sense
            For an agency that hopes to retain an employee for 20 years, the cost of extended leave compared to a new hire is simple math. It costs money to recruit, train, and equip a new officer, in addition to the liability, supervision costs, and low productivity of two or three rookie years. It makes much more sense to make efforts to restore an existing officer to health and productivity.
            Sadly, the common presumption about things we classify as mental health issues is that they are chronic and permanent. With professional attention and peer support the things we worry about the most – PTSD, drug dependence, and depression – are all treatable with success. Members who have addressed and resolved these kinds of health issues must not bear the label of “defective”, but as valuable overcomers.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Can Your Smile Get You Killed?

Anyone who has ever taken a polygraph knows how most citizens are feeling when a police officer approaches. A stress response is normal in almost everyone hooked up to the instrument. A stress response to any police contact is also certain.

Some officers, in a well intentioned effort to reduce the stress of the subject in a contact, will be exceptionally friendly. I am sad to report that this happy attitude can be fatal. Here are four reasons why:

Dissonance and congruence.
The brain wants to match every sensory input with a pre-existing pattern. It wants the world to be congruent with its expectations. When something doesn't fit, there is dissonance. Dissonance, like three sour notes played together on a keyboard, creates tension. Tension lights the fuse of the fight, flight, or freeze response.

What does a motorist or pedestrian expect from a police contact? The template in most minds is one of efficiency, stern alertness, and authority. We may not like that persona, but that's the role that society has assigned to us. When an officer is casually friendly it breaks the mold of that expectation. Rather than reducing tension, that smile and friendliness may trigger that dissonance in the citizen's brain, creating more nervousness, fear, or even anger than the expected standard professional greeting officers are taught in the academy.

Smiling Makes You Happy and Careless.
Research shows that when a person clenches a pencil horizontally between the teeth, the resulting lip posture mimics the muscles associated with smiling. This artificial grin actually tells the brain that you are happy. A happy brain is one that is all right with the world, therefore increasing lag time to recognize and respond to danger cues. Conversely, frowning is associated with making the brain think harder.

A person who thinks they can smile genuinely while pondering the possibility of a sudden attack will find the incongruity of those attitudes projected on their face. This conflict can be perceived by the citizen and likely interpreted as not really friendly, ratcheting up their stress response.

The Guilty Will Use Your Good Mood Against You.
Contact with a subject who is actually guilty poses the greatest threat to the overly-friendly police officer. The dissonance is amplified. For the offender who does not respond in kind with some socially acceptable friendliness behavior to the friendly officer, the emotion gap gets more pronounced. The officer will either increase efforts to be friendly, or suddenly turn stern in response to the guilty offender's stoic or silent response. Aggression can result.

The happy police officer tends to be more talkative, trying to evoke a sense of calm in the subject while accomplishing just the opposite. A silent offender is more dangerous than a talkative offender. Plots and plans for attack and evasion are on the mind of the silent offender. If the guilty subject believes he can use the officer's lack of awareness as an opportunity, he will. Humans are not wired to be cautious and happy at the same time.

Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?
FBI interviews with cop killers finds that these killers often report a subjective feeling that their victim was vulnerable. A recent set of experiments by Dr. Bill Lewinski on traffic stops resulted in an informal report by the role playing driver. Told to fire on an approaching officer on a simulated traffic stop that driver also had a subjective sense of who would be vulnerable to attack. As a matter of statistical reality, the number of officer murders relative to the number of police contacts is so small that the randomness of police killings defies efforts to find patterns to the murders. However, these two well respected sources raise a red flag about the importance of an officer's professional and authoritative presence that cannot be ignored.

Polite and Professional Wins

Nothing in this article should encourage an officer to be surly, impolite, officious, authoritarian, or paranoid. Use the standard greeting that you learned in the academy. Be professional, polite, and alert. And smile a lot - when you get home.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ferguson: Democracy Wounded


Around noon on August 9th, 2014, in the nondescript St.Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, every principle of the American ideal was tested and laid bare to the world. An armed agent of the government was brutally attacked by a man holding the meager proceeds of his strong armed robbery minutes before.

Michael Brown, African-American, is now memorialized with a permanent marker at the site of his death near his day's start of a quest to smoke the morning away. His funeral was a national spectacle, attended by representatives of high office.

The cigars for his recipe were stolen with a forceful shove from a hard working Asian-American. This shop owner continues his daily struggle as a forgotten  victim.

The armed government agent, of caucasion heritage, whose face was smashed and who fought for his life against his own duty sidearm is now in hiding after every scientific and legal proof of numerous investigations showed that he acted within the law.

This story as I tell it, factually incontrovertible, will never be read dispassionately - the reader's blood pressure and pulse are already on the rise no matter with whom one’s sympathies lie. Facts alone do not tell the story, for the story is as old as the nation itself and contains every emotion born of the human desire for freedom, with all of the slogans and mythologies that history records in every era.

The story is about power, privilege, fear, poverty, and the essence of government. The story is about the political exploitation of race, how we rage, and a search for the answer to Rodney King's plaintive question: can't we all just get along?

Most importantly, the story is about what we are not allowed to discuss. The rhetoric of easy, pleasing answers demands 24/7 surveillance of law enforcement, millions of dollars thrown at training and commissions and investigations - all of which are largely "reform theater": looking like we are all really doing something about a problem the public seems to want us to do something about. It will be used as long as it can obscure other national embarrassments, or to maintain some degree of mollification until more urgent news pushes it to a vague memory.

We are not allowed to discuss realistically the needs of law enforcement to accomplish the demands of its public. We used Tasers and the outcry was "too much shocking!” We shoot armed criminals and the outcry is "why didn't you just use the Taser?"  We dress and act tactically and are told to "soften" up and be guardians and not warriors, yet when a theater, or cartoon convention, or military base is attacked our shiny shoes and the bullet in our pocket can't protect those who depend on us. We acknowledge the soul-killing brain crush of the job and yet force our officers to keep their need for mental health services a secret or lose their career.

We can't discuss that because black lives matter we need to find a solution for black victims of black perpetrators. The rare police shooting must be headline news with the obligatory riot while black homicide victims at the hands of black killers in any given year would stack four across and up to the observation deck of the Empire State building. But to address that would be racist, irrelevant, generate no headlines, and embarrass leadership that depends on misdirected fear.

We can't ask what we can do for our country, we must only demand what it can do for us. We can't invoke Martin Luther King's call for non-violence to change hearts. We can't mourn black police officer's deaths. They are not sufficient fodder for political platforms, votes, and headlines.

The lesson of Ferguson will not be found in the noise or the flames or the headlines. It will only be found in the silence of what we fear to discuss. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Criminal Heroes – What Will History Say?

Someday a student will read about the middle of this decade, wondering who its heroes were. The names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray will be cited as persons behind a catalyst of violence and murder that marked an epidemic of hatred directed at the institution of policing and individual police officers. The student will note that a few laws were changed and more training was required. The student will also note, if they are astute, that the number of officer involved shootings did not significantly decline since they were rare to begin with.

The student will read about black neighborhoods scorched by riots. Small businesses destroyed. Tax dollars strained to rebuild and neighborhoods abandoned. He will ask why those labeled as demanding justice brought ruin to their own community. He will see Brown described as a gentle giant and not as a man fleeing a strong armed robbery and proven to have attacked Officer Wilson, Garner as just trying to make a living selling cigarettes and not his organized crime affiliation and criminal history, and Gray, with a long rap sheet for narcotics and in possession of a switch blade when taken into custody, as having had “scrapes with the law”. The strain to make these habitual criminals into heroes will not be obvious to him.

He will read that journalists and commentators place these men in the same category as those who marched with MLK, and the victims of vicious lynchings of KKK terror. He will read that the violence was necessary for reform, and that the cry of black lives matter was as noble as the call of I have a dream. He will read that calling these men thugs was the worst kind of racism. Only in the smallest of footnotes will he read about the professional agitators and criminal gangs that joined local masked rioters to hurt and destroy.

He will read that the police were the greatest enemy of black citizens. He will probably not read that while cities burned over these men, bodies of black citizens murdered by black killers every year would stack as high as the Empire State Building. Those black lives didn't quite matter as much. He will not know what resources sucked into the repair caused by rioters would not be available to address the legacy of poverty in black neighborhoods where families of color worked hard and desperately to overcome institutionalized racism from cradle to grave. No, the focus was on that police contact. Was it poor prenatal care? Fatherless families? Third rate educational opportunities? No, it was that cop. The easy answer.

If the student of history desire truth he will find it. And he will wish we had found it in the moment. 

But we did not. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What Police Critics May Miss in Response to the DOJ Ferguson Report

A man whispers to the waiter and nods toward the gray haired man wearing the weather beaten embroidered Vietnam Veteran cap. The veteran nears the end of his meal and finds that he owes nothing. Someone paid his bill. As he leaves, he hears “thank you for your service” and feels a mix of emotions. This is the same person who left the roiling streets of protestors in America to be dropped into the jungle of a terrible conflict, ordered to take a hill then give it back. 

The same person came home and walked through the airport in uniform and hears mutters of “baby killer” as mothers pull their children close. The next two decades are filled with television shows and movies about crazed Vietnam veterans. Finally, the mood of America warms. We now celebrate the soldier. Most conclude that a politician’s unpopular war should not condemn the soldiers who served and sacrificed.

Poking the Wrong Bear
Today’s police officer is the Vietnam soldier of 1967. Today it is the police officer on patrol who is suffering the brunt of the frenzy of anti-police sentiment. This is not only wrong but unproductive. While ethics requires every individual to conform to ideals of behavior, the reality is that the line officer has only small influence over the organization for which he or she works.

The most vocal police critics are poking the wrong bear. Local political leadership (not the feds and not legislation – I mean real leadership) is the starting point for examination of the need for reform in American policing. While the Nuremburg defense (I was just following orders) only goes so far, the rules of conduct, accountability, and training lie in the hands of leaders both elected and appointed. Harassment against, violence toward, and provocation of uniformed officers is a lashing out at a visible symbol of perceived problems, not the source of them.

Sifting the Issues
The single most important issue obscuring truth in the Ferguson debate is the unfiltered conglomeration of emotion and myth over the Michael Brown shooting. The decision by Officer Wilson to use deadly force, at the moment he made that decision, is entirely unrelated to any pre-existing police culture in Ferguson. Anyone who, for the sake of emotion or agenda, denies the multiple investigative finding of the facts that conclude, universally, that Brown was leaving the scene of a strong arm robbery, invaded Wilson’s patrol vehicle and struggled for the officer’s gun after violently punching the officer, has lost credibility to speak for real reform. This was not a racist white officer who shot down an innocent black teen at high noon for jaywalking.  Clinging to the false Twitter narrative of that day is a person with an agenda of denial and anger, a non-thinker; one who would rather continue to sing the mythical song of hands up don’t shoot than question why voters perpetuated their city’s exploitative administration.

The issue is not one of police personality. Labeling police officers as power hungry, psychopathic, low intelligence, and other manner of bigoted classification is no better than any other prejudice. I was on a talk radio panel discussion that included a black attorney who prefaced his remarks with “I know a lot of good police officers…” If I had said I know a lot of good black people or a lot of good lawyers, I would have been crucified for the implied slander of the majority of either of those groups. These tired, ad hominem attacks are counterproductive to change. Disdain for police officers is the laziest of all protests. People of good will need to be quick to censure this approach in any debate about policing.

Support Change by Demanding the Best for the Troops 
What then is the issue? In Ferguson, the clearly emerging issue is one of the corrupting influence of money. Money drove police priorities. Money drove abuses of the city’s court. Money provided the camouflage smokescreen behind which police conduct was overlooked while police “productivity” was celebrated. Cash was the currency of success through the eyes of the leadership rather than integrity, compassion, fairness, or even public safety.

Fictional Sgt. Friday from the television show Dragnet said the trouble with police work is that you have to recruit from the human race. As I have led dozens, trained hundreds, and written for tens of thousands of police officers I remain proud and privileged to be surrounded by these heroes. Like soldiers, the men and women who sign up to serve in the incredibly challenging world of law enforcement will respond with their best when led by leaders with integrity. We need leaders who are true defenders of the Constitution, advocates for the weak, and enemies of the predatory criminals whose ruthlessness the average person doesn’t comprehend. Policing is a high and noble calling. As with any fine thing, it is fragile and subject to stain unless properly cared for. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What the DOJ got right about Ferguson

Making apologies for Ferguson is getting harder and harder. After I read the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department report and recommendations, I find little fault with its conclusions.

As I turned each page of the report I was ready to be Holder’s critic and see his biased hand in every conclusion. As a researcher I was ready to question assumptions and statistics. As a staunch defender of police officers I was ready to point out unrealistic expectations and civilian ignorance.  In the end, the facts leading to the conclusion that there is a pattern of citizen mistreatment, quite deliberately encouraged by Ferguson’s city governance, are sound.

By way of critique, I see some argument in some of the anecdotal accounts, but the damning constellation of facts collected leads to some clear patterns. I also see little in the following public comment about accountability of the citizenry for allowing these abuses to continue. However, I don’t want to be among those who blithely write off “a pervasive lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among ‘certain segment’ of the community”, even though closer examination of that premise is an important part of whatever healing may come. But that was not the DOJ mandate.

As a Missouri native with St. Louis connections I grew up very aware of the prevalent racism in the city. My small town had no African-American subculture that I could tell from the few black families I knew. But even within my lifetime there were many towns posted with “sundown” warnings that no blacks were allowed inside the city limits after dark.  My generation watched the evening news as Dr. King marched, cities burned, and police dogs attacked.  As a boy I remember an elderly black man stepped off the sidewalk to let me pass in a conditioned deference to a white boy, just before I was going to step aside out of respect for his age. My dad had to explain that. It is no surprise that these American experiences cast a shadow over race relations a half century later. I also later learned that race hate was not a one way street.

What struck me most about the report was not that there was a deliberate attack on black residents, but a deliberate fleecing of citizens to fill city coffers. Given the power differential, the fact that black residents were disproportionately affected as a byproduct of the city’s greed is a natural consequence, creating a near indentured servitude. Indeed, laws were made to be enforced and we use armed government agents for that enforcement be it robbery or jaywalking. But the structure of due process must be designed with justice in mind, not the clinking of silver. Fines for offenses and warrants for no shows are for the public good, not for capturing citizens in a web of extortion.

My hope is that citizens will stop the tedious demonstrations and start voting, that all sides can get past the noise and review the fundamental principles of government, and that the officers of Ferguson PD can get the leadership needed to allow them to do the fine work I am confident they truly want to do

Monday, January 19, 2015

Cop Hate: The Zombie Epidemic

As I watched the zombie movie World War Z recently, the images of perfectly normal people turning into raging, ravenous creatures reminded me of the anti-police movement spawned by the Ferguson riots I witnessed last August. 

How can we understand the swiftly moving and factually erroneous consensus that cops are killing unarmed black men all the time and everywhere? One answer is through the research of Daniel Kahneman. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Noble prize winning psychologist Kahneman describes a thinking error that plagues ordinary folks as well as researchers. He identifies two thinking systems of the brain. System 1 is our intuitive thinking which is the part of the brain that actually makes most of our decisions and drives most of our behavior. We are largely unaware of its influence. 

System 2 is our conscious decision making process where problems are examined and conclusions reached. Kahneman tells us that our System 2 thinking is influenced significantly, and surreptitiously, by System 1 thinking. This is why intelligent people can form an objectively incorrect conclusion such as that killings by police of African-Americans is rampant. 

System 1 thinking assumes what Kahneman labels WYSIATI - "what you see is all there is". This derivative of our caveman minds makes quick assessments based on limited information to survive. Rhetoric about Ferguson in newspapers, blogs, and tweets saturated the media. Many, moved by the emotional impact of the event, believed what they read. Kahneman says this thinking "suppresses ambiguity and spontaneously constructs stories that are as coherent as possible. Unless the message is immediately negated, the associations that it evokes will spread as if the message were true."

Kahneman also notes that small numbers are much more prone to erroneous conclusions than large numbers. There's some statistical math involved, but essentially the fewer examples one tests, the chance of randomness being identified as a pattern increases significantly. Kahneman says there is a strong bias toward believing small samples: "We are prone to exaggerate the consistency and coherence of what we see." What this means in the current debate is that: 1) people heard the first narrative of police killings of blacks and not only believed it but immediately framed all stories within that mindset and, 2) the number of unarmed black men killed by police is so small as to make it mathematically impossible to draw any conclusion outside of randomness. In other words, even if there is a "kill bias" based on police perceptions of race, there is not enough data to prove it because the events are, in fact, quite rare. 

Our brains are crazy about finding patterns. Basketball fans just know that sometimes players get a "hot hand", but statisticians have proved that these are random events. The casino industry relies on gamblers believing they have found a pattern that will repeat for a big win but, again, math always wins. The formulations of a pattern that frames our thinking and behavior is useful, but often factually flawed based on limited data. Such is the case with the social contagion exhibited by protesters and pundits about the police "pattern" of  killing black suspects. 

These brain based biases are cemented so quickly that we will ignore compelling evidence that contradicts them. That's why those reading this article with the already formed conclusion of black victimization by police will not likely use their frontal cortex to examine facts that may change their thinking. Grand jury findings and investigative reports are rejected as flawed and unreliable against their predisposed belief. When people use the comic line "my mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts", they are stating a fact of brain science that can be overcome only with a disciplined consideration of facts which most are unwilling to work through. "Sustaining doubt", says Kahnmen, "is harder work than sliding into certainty."

The consequences of understanding how contagious opinions are formed are significant for police leaders. First, it is encouraging to know that there may be a scientific explanation for the mass behavior that seems to be irrational. Secondly, we can be aware that we should not make sweeping procedural changes based on public opinion that may have no basis in fact. That's not to say we don't consider the political and diplomatic consequences, but making permanent changes that may reduce officer safety must be done based on reliable data. Third, we know that only an infusion of factual information can inoculate the population from the zombie march of brain dead thinking. 

The current anti-police sentiment will not fade like the Macarana or the Ebola panic. Unless law enforcement leaders arm themselves with reliable data to share with the pubic, the mythology of the current movement will become embedded as a cultural reality. We must not allow this mistake of history to prevail.