Cognitive dissonance: that terrible feeling you get when confronted with information that challenges your view of the world. You can ignore the new information, blindly accept it, or interrogate it. Look for distinctions between what you believed and what you are being told. If there are none, maybe you just learned something and can adjust your sensemaking. Then again, maybe you’ll discover that what you’re hearing is nonsense, you can reject it, and confidently return to a happy state of psychological consistency and cognitive ease.
Many of you participating in police reform discussions are finding plenty of opportunities to interrogate your beliefs and those across the table. You are hearing sweeping indictments of a “racist” and “oppressive” police profession that may be wildly inconsistent with your experience and your identity. Excited delirium no longer represents a medical emergency with a significant risk of death, but is instead a “controversial” theory used to excuse police killings. Even selective attention and inattentional blindness, which can explain how we missed a gorilla, become nothing more than “convenient excuses” when police fail to make important observations during critical incidents.
For many, nothing results in disorienting cognitive dissonance more than hearing protestors and civic leaders demand “accountability” before it is ever established that the police had done anything illegal. More so when all available evidence indicates the officers were engaged in perfectly reasonable, even heroic efforts to protect themselves and others.
Admittedly, there have always been critics unwilling to extend the benefit of the doubt to police officers. To them, “police violence” always demands accountability as it is the avoidable result of untrained, militaristic, warrior-minded officers, unwilling to admit the humanity of others, unwilling to de-escalate, and in desperate need of bodycam babysitters and “unbiased” civilian oversight. To them, any rational explanation or legal justification for the use of force is merely an attempt to avoid “accountability” and should be rejected.
To be clear, police accountability, as it is commonly understood, is vital to a civilized society and should be aggressively maintained. In that sense, accountability refers to the systems that require an officer to defend the reasonableness of their decisions and conduct.
In a fair system, police decisions are viewed through the lens of the “reasonable officer.” Meaning, they are evaluated in light of the officer’s training, education, and experience—while acknowledging the psychological and physiological limitations that come from being human.
The reasonableness of an officer’s conduct is also judged under the law and against the varied government interests the officer seeks to protect. This makes it critical that government leaders notify officers which government interests they are expected to prioritize (i.e. arrest the drunk driver or put him in a cab). Otherwise, calls for “accountability” can appear arbitrary and arise even when officers are following the law.
Social Justice Accountability
As it sits now, there is a constant tension between traditional law and order interests (e.g. crime reduction, public safety, law enforcement) and the government’s broader efforts to achieve “social justice” (the reduction of unearned disadvantages and systemic inequality). The result is that officers are no longer judged solely on the lawfulness of their conduct, but instead on whether their actions support the larger social justice efforts, including renewed efforts to dismantle “systemic racism.”
It’s here I argue that agency leaders who confidently defend an officer’s use of force by pointing to “officer safety,” may be winning a game that the other side isn’t playing: “When a community’s goals are for the police to stop shooting their sons and stop filling jails with their fathers, it is little comfort that the arrest or shooting was legally justified—and highly unlikely they will concede that point.”
Even among those willing to concede the lawfulness of an officer’s conduct, there may still be demands for “accountability.” Sometimes these demands reflect the belief that the officer is still supporting a “system of oppression,” while others simply believe the officer didn’t do enough ethically to avoid the violence. In either case, when an officer’s conduct is otherwise legal, there are limited avenues for critics to pursue “accountability.”
Adapted Strategies for “Accountability”
When critics of the police profession find themselves without adequate recourse for what they feel are social injustices, they may be forced to adapt their strategies for accountability. Civilian review boards may be stood up, taking special care that no member has police experience or training (to ensure there isn’t a pro-police bias). Protests may be staged with varying degrees of violence until officers are suspended, policies changed, and tactics outlawed. Media campaigns may be waged to ensure that even the clearest examples of police heroism and bravery are recast as “controversial,” “problematic,” and “deeply troubling” examples of the system’s failure to hold officers accountable.
As strategies to “hold officers accountable” continue in the background, more traditional tactics continue to be employed as well. Individual officers are subjected to ad hominem attacks, complaint records are referenced without explanation, and questions of racism are introduced almost as a matter of course.
As Force Science frequently learns, even science is not safe from attack if it prevents an officer from being “held accountable.” We have heard that concepts like inattentional blindness (when you focus intently on one thing, you may fail to notice other things) don’t apply to the police because of their “special training.”
We have also heard that “the problem” with scientific evidence like inattentional blindness is that judges and juries are often persuaded by it. Of course, concepts like inattentional blindness aren’t actually controversial. Experts are routinely allowed to testify on these issues, even after concerted efforts by opposing attorneys to keep them off the stand. In other words, if the science is unreliable or the evidence is being “stretched beyond what the data can support,” there is an adversarial process to keep those arguments away from the jury.
Beyond the science itself, we have heard arguments that the application of the science requires pure speculation. In the case of inattentional blindness, that means a jury may not be able to distinguish between an officer who is lying and an officer who honestly didn’t see something or didn’t remember something. Most readers will appreciate how officers might want the jury to consider the science precisely for that reason. It provides an alternative to the plaintiff’s theory that the officer is lying. The same can be said for “slip and capture” research when intent is at issue, speed studies when wound location is at issue, and excited delirium research when the cause of death is in question.
Of course, the point is not to actually contest the research. As far as I know, not a single research finding or observation presented by Force Science has ever been refuted. Instead, the point is often just to undermine confidence in the research, hoping to remove any inconvenient truths that might prevent an officer from being held “accountable,” whether they did anything illegal or not.
Accountability and Evidence-based Research
For those readers still bracing against waves of anti-police rhetoric and rapid reform initiatives, we encourage you to continue to take advantage of Force Science research, training, and free resources. There is a growing push for evidence-based police practices amid concerns that past “police reform” solutions too often lacked empirical evidence of effectiveness and were largely based on controversial social science or no science at all.
Honest accountability processes will always require highly trained investigators and experts to guide police agencies, courts, and communities. Force Science graduates are uniquely positioned to consult their community leaders on these processes and the viability of many of the current police reform proposals. These graduates have attended courses developed and taught by an instructor staff that includes medical doctors, Ph.D. psychologists, litigation attorneys, public policy attorneys, and trainers with extensive law enforcement, research, and expert witness experience.
The combined accomplishments of our affiliated researchers and instructors include over 400 research articles and multiple textbooks. Force Science courses are supported by 27 peer-reviewed Force Science studies and backed by nearly 1000 combined studies and reports. Course textbooks are written by top researchers in the fields of perception, cognition, decision-making, motor learning, and performance.
There is no doubt that officers should be required to defend the reasonableness of their decisions and the appropriateness of their actions. But as we all work to ensure officers are held accountable, judgment should fall only after they have enjoyed the same due process as the rest of us, including the full benefit of evidence-based research. Let us know how we can help.